Feeling dizzy or light-headed, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain or fainting may signal cardiac arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat that requires urgent medical attention.
Cardiac arrhythmia is the medical term for an abnormal heartbeat, whether too fast or too slow. An arrhythmia typically results from a change to the heart’s electrical conduction system; an irregular heartbeat can impair the efficient circulation of blood flowing throughout the body and heightens the risk of heart failure.
The heartbeat is regulated by electrical conductions that transmit signals from the heart’s upper right chamber over to the left chamber, then down to the lower chambers. As a signal travels, it causes the heart to contract and pump oxygen-rich blood out to other parts of the body. The heart’s electrical system can slow or speed up the heart rate depending on the body’s activity level; a normal resting heart rate beats 50 to 100 times per minute.
When a patient’s heartbeat becomes irregular, the heart may beat too fast, too slow, skip beats or beat too soon -- all of these come under the definition of cardiac arrhythmia
. Some types of arrhythmia are not considered to be clinically significant or dangerous, but more serious cases can be life-threatening.
If you experience any of the warning signs -- feeling dizzy or light-headed, having a pounding in the chest, shortness of breath, chest pain or fainting -- it’s important to get immediate medical help. Some patients don’t experience any signs or symptoms and only learn of their arrhythmia during a health check-up or when seeking medical help for an unrelated condition.
Most types of cardiac arrhythmia
can be diagnosed with an EKG (electrocardiogram) test
. Some arrhythmias go undetected during an EKG, particularly when the irregular heartbeat is brief and intermittent. In such cases, other diagnostic tests are available, such as an exercise stress test
, a Holter monitor test (measures cardiovascular electrical activity for 24 to 48 hours), or a cardiac electrophysiology study
conducted by inserting a catheter through a blood vessel into the heart’s upper and lower chambers. The tip of the catheter records the heart’s electrical conduction and helps pinpoint the problem area.
The optimal treatment for cardiac arrhythmia depends on the causes, symptoms, location of the problem and its severity. Certain types of arrhythmias
don’t require medical treatment. When treatment is necessary, it may include a combination of:
-- converts a too-rapid heart rate to a normal rhythm using electrical current or medication;
-- a procedure to dissolve abnormal tissues that may be causing the arrhythmia;
Pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator.
Though cardiac arrhythmia
is not always preventable, patients can significantly reduce their individual risk by adopting healthy diet and exercise habits and steering clear of the most common arrhythmia triggers: coffee, alcohol, stress and smoking.