What is Arrhythmia?

An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm—either too fast (tachycardia), too slow (bradycardia), or irregular. Most arrhythmias are not life threatening, but many do require monitoring and treatment. Some heart rhythm disorders are in fact deadly.

Understanding the Heart

Symptoms of Arrhythmia

A person may feel any of the following symptoms when experiencing an arrhythmia:

  • Palpitations (feeling like the heart “skipped a beat,” or throbbing or fluttering in the chest)
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced ability to exercise

In more serious cases, these symptoms may also be experienced:

  • Syncope, or loss of consciousness
  • Dizziness, faintness, or lightheadedness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cardiac arrest

Causes of Arrhythmia

Arrhythmia can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • Congenital defect—Some people are born with an irregular heartbeat.
  • Lifestyle—Consuming alcohol or caffeine, or using tobacco or illegal drugs can induce an arrhythmia.
  • Medication—Some cold medicines and diet pills have been known to cause arrhythmia.
  • Heart disease—History of heart attack or high blood pressure can cause arrhythmia.

Diagnosing Arrhythmia

If you experience symptoms of arrhythmia, consult with your physician. Even though most arrhythmias are not life-threatening, it is best to have this condition diagnosed and monitored. Your doctor will review your symptoms and medical history to determine the cause of your symptoms, and may prescribe various tests. Tests may include:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)—The heart’s electrical impulses are recorded and measured to indicate the presence of arrhythmia.
  • Holter Monitor (portable device)—If the initial EKG is inconclusive, your doctor may prescribe the use of a portable monitor that can “keep on eye on” the heart for 24-48 hours.
  • Event Monitor (portable device)—If the Holter monitor is inconclusive, an Event monitor is used which can monitor the heart for a longer period of time (4 weeks).
  • Home Telemetry—This is another form of monitoring that is done if the Holter or Event monitors are inconclusive or not appropriate.
  • Stress EKG or Stress TestA Stress EKG is performed will you exercise, usually jogging on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike.
  • Electrophysiologic Study (EPS)A more invasive test where the doctor inserts a small tube through a blood vessel, running it to the heart, where he/she can more closely determine the cause of the arrhythmia.
  • Implantable Event Monitor (implantable loop recorder)—This is a monitoring device that is implanted under the skin if the Holter, Event, or Home Telemetry monitors fail to capture heart rhythm abnormalities.

Treatment Options

Treatment for arrhythmia varies from person to person and depends upon the severity, frequency and cause of the arrhythmia. For some people, simply eliminating caffeine or alcohol from their diet can make eliminate the symptoms. For others, treatment may be more aggressive.


Medication to prevent blood clots, to control high blood pressure or to control other medical conditions (such as thyroid disease) can be effective in preventing arrhythmia.

Surgical Procedures

Various surgical procedures can also be effective in preventing or treating arrhythmias. Procedures include:

  • Cardioversion—Electric shocks are administered to reset your heart rate.
  • Catheter ablationRadiofrequency ablation is used to reduce the over stimulation of the blood vessels, decreasing the heart rate.
  • PacemakerA pacemaker is surgically inserted to keep a slow heart rate at a normal level.
  • DefibrillatorA defibrillator is surgically inserted to keep a fast heart rate at the right level, by giving the heart electric shocks when it goes too fast.
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