The heart pumps in a rhythmic manner to distribute blood to all organs of the body. However, sometimes this pumping of blood may turn arrhythmic to cause irregular heartbeats, medically termed as arrhythmia. A recent survey done in the US has found that more than 850,000 people are hospitalized for arrhythmia every year.
A heartbeat can become irregular at any heart rate, which is the number of times the heart beats in a minute, ranging from 50 to 100 bpm; in normal conditions, it should be between 60 to 75 bpm. Arrhythmia can occur at slow heart rates, i.e. less than 60 bpm, or at high heart rates, i.e. more than 100 bpm. The former is called bradyarrhythmia or bradycardia, while the latter is known as tachyarrhythmia or tachycardia.
Symptoms of an arrhythmia are very vague. Sometimes, patients do not notice any symptoms at although they will be evident to a doctor during a physical examination. Patients with severe arrhythmia may show no or very few symptoms while those with evident symptoms may have less complexities. Some common signs are:
- Intermittent chest pain or angina, which is the most common symptom of an irregular heartbeat.
- Palpitation, or rapid and irregular, intense beating of the heart.
- Fainting or near-fainting syndrome known as syncope.
- Difficulty in breathing, especially, while doing physically-straining work.
- Feeling of fluttering or flapping in the chest.
- Confusion, concentration problems, and lightheaded feeling are some other indications of a heartbeat that is not regular.
The contraction and expansion of the heart is controlled by electrical signals or impulses from the brain. Any interruption in the transmission of these electrical pulses can cause the heart to miss a beat. Following are the main causes of arrhythmia:
- Coronary heart disease is a commonly found cause of arrhythmia. It is a condition, in which the coronary circulation to the cardiac muscle is hampered, causing inefficient functioning of the heart muscles.
- External triggers or stimulants like smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, drug abuse, and high caffeine intake.
- Electrolytically imbalanced blood, i.e. low or high concentration of sodium or potassium.
- Stimulants in cough and cold medications can cause the heart to skip a beat. Always go for prescribed drugs and consult your doctor to suggest the best drug for you.
- Arrhythmia can occur while convalescing from a heart surgery.
- Hypertension or high blood pressure
- Malfunctioning of the thyroid gland or hyperthyroidism is a less common cause of arrhythmia.
- Damage to the heart muscles or scarring of the heart, often caused due to a heart attack.
- Insulin or dietary supplements and diabetes are also reported to be the causes of arrhythmia.
A cardiologist will try to figure out the cause of such a condition in a patient with the help of a few standard tests which are:
Electrocardiogram (ECG) Test
ECG involves recording electrical and rhythmic activity of the heart. Electric sensors are attached close to the patient's heart and impulses are displayed in the form of waves on a CRO screen or printed on paper.
Blood test can reveal a patient's blood count, and thyroid, kidney, and liver function. This test also shows the amount of brain natriuretic peptide (BNP), which is a hormone secreted by the heart when it has suffered any injury. Electrolyte level is also indicated in this test.
Echocardiogram or Ultrasound Test
An echocardiogram or ultrasound checks the heartbeat or the pumping action of the heart. Here, sound waves reflected from the heart surface are used to create a video image of the heart to see how efficiently the heart is pumping.
Another test that can help diagnose the condition in a patient is chest X-ray. X-ray images give the best view of the condition of the heart to a cardiologist.
It is a portable device that is attached very close to the patient's heart under the clothing. The patient then goes about doing his normal routine for a couple of days as the device records the functioning of the heart in detail.
The most common treatment for bradyarrhythmia is implanting a pacemaker. The pacemaker is a device that is placed under the skin, to control the heartbeat rhythm using electrical pulses.
Irregular beating of the heart can cause a few complications like:
- Brain stroke, which is the result of a blood clot caused by an arrhythmic heart, that makes its way to a brain artery. In most cases, a stroke is fatal.
- Cardiac muscle seizure leading to stoppage of beating heart or heart attack.
- The most common cause of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, affecting people over the age of 65, is also caused by arrhythmia.
Irregular heartbeats can happen to anyone, but it is found to be less in people with healthy eating and working habits. Physical fitness and regular cardiovascular exercises are known eliminate almost all the causes. So, keep your heart in a robust condition, and let the heartbeat stay rhythmic.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.