What is Cardiac Arrhythmia or Irregular Heart Rate?
Cardiac arrhythmia refers to the condition where the heartbeat is too fast, too slow or is irregular. In most cases, this condition is harmless, but it sometimes can be serious or life-threatening. When a heart is in arrhythmia, there may not be enough blood flow throughout the body, causing potential damage to the brain, heart and other vital organs.
In a normal heart, electrical signals run from the upper portion of the organ, in the right and left atria, to the two lower chambers, the ventricles, in a regular, repetitive rhythm. This causes the heart muscle to contract from top to bottom and pump blood throughout the body. When these signals are irregular, or arrhythmic, the atria and/or the ventricles can quiver instead of beating normally, affecting blood flow.
There are many types of arrhythmia and most of them are harmless. When treating serious heart rhythm problems, the level of success depends on the type and severity of the specific instance. The most common type of serious arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation (AFib), in which the heart’s atrial chambers are contracting in a fast and irregular fashion.
In a patient with AFib, the heart’s electrical signals travel in a rapid, disorganized pattern causing the atria to quickly quiver (or fibrillate), decreasing the effective circulation of blood in the heart and throughout the body. Sometimes, these abnormal signals spread to the ventricles, disrupting their rhythm as rapid contraction does not allow the chambers to completely fill and empty, reducing overall blood flow.
AFib is not usually life-threatening but can cause stroke or congestive heart failure if not properly diagnosed or treated with medication.
Three methods are used in combination to diagnose arrhythmias: Information about a patient’s medical and family history, a physical examination and various tests and procedures. A cardiologist or electrophysiologist, a specialist in arrhythmias, usually will coordinate the diagnosis.
Medical and family history: The doctor will first ask for a description of the patient’s symptoms and whether he or she—or any direct, biological relatives —have had heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes. Other questions will involve current prescriptions as well as over-the-counter medications, alcohol, drugs or smoking. Stress factors in life also will be explored.
Physical examination: The rate and rhythm of the patient’s heartbeat will be measured, the pulse will be checked and the doctor will listen for a heart murmur. The legs and feet also will be examined for swelling, which could point to an enlarged heart or heart failure.
Tests and procedures: The cardiologist has a wide array of techniques from which to choose. These range from a simple blood test or chest x-ray to an EKG (electrocardiogram), an Echo (echocardiogram) or a treadmill-administered stress test. The patient also could be asked to wear a Holter monitor or event monitor. The Holter measures 24 or 48 straight hours of heart activity while the event device is worn for several weeks and only records data when activated by the patient or when it senses irregular heart activity.
Treating Heart Arrhythmia
If you or a loved one has an irregular heartbeat, a heart doctor should be consulted to determine the severity and prescribe the proper medication and treatment. The cardiovascular specialists at Mercy Health System stand ready to help treat arrhythmia and prevent it from causing more serious health issues.
Mercy Health System has Expert Heart Specialists
Find a cardiovascular specialist in our online physician directory or call 1.877.GO MERCY.