What is arrhythmia?
Your heart has its own intricate electrical system for keeping your heartbeat constant and regular, like the timing belt in your car keeps the engine's pistons firing in a certain rhythm. When the heart's electrical system "misfires," you may feel the heart flutter or perhaps skip a beat. This sensation is known as arrhythmia, or simply an irregular heartbeat.
Many arrhythmias are harmless, but some can interfere with the heart's ability to pump enough blood to the rest of the body.
What causes arrhythmia?
An arrhythmia can result if the electrical signals that control the heartbeat are blocked or delayed. This can be caused by a defect in the nerves that produce the electrical signal or anything that prevents the signal from being carried through the heart. Your chances of developing an arrhythmia can be increased by:
- Heavy alcohol use
- Certain drugs (such as amphetamines or cocaine)
- Some prescriptions or over-the-counter medications
- Too much caffeine
- A prior heart attack
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Certain birth defects
What are the symptoms of an arrhythmia?
Not all arrhythmias cause symptoms; of those that do, the most common are:
- A fast heartbeat (called tachycardia)
- A slow heartbeat (called bradycardia)
- An irregular heartbeat
- The heart "skipping a beat" or pausing between heartbeats
More serious symptoms of an arrhythmia include:
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness or fainting
How is an arrhythmia diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects an arrhythmia, he or she will first ask some detailed questions about your symptoms, your medical history, any medications you are taking, and any health-related habits such as smoking. After taking your pulse and listening to your heart with a stethoscope, your doctor will then check for swelling in your legs and feet, which could be a sign of an enlarged heart or heart failure.
If your physical exam indicates a possible arrhythmia, your doctor may order one or more of the following diagnostic tests:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
- Holter monitor
- Blood tests to check the levels of certain substances in the blood that can increase the chances of arrhythmia
How is arrhythmia treated?
Cardiologists called electrophysiologists specialize in the heart's electrical system and in treating related conditions such as arrhythmia. If you have an arrhythmia that requires treatment, your doctor may refer you to an electrophysiologist.
If an arrhythmia puts you at risk for more serious conditions in the future, your doctor may recommend a treatment plan that includes:
- Lifestyle changes such as controlling or eliminating caffeine or alcohol
- Monitoring and tracking your pulse
- Antiarrhythmic medications such as amiodarone or bepridil hydrochloride
As part of Methodist DeBakey Cardiology Associates, our team of cardiac electrophysiology subspecialists provide services for common and complex arrhythmia disorders. Recognized nationally as leaders in their field, these physicians provide the entire continuum of care, from disease management to cardiac ablation, and when needed, surgical device implantation.
For more information about Methodist DeBakey Cardiology Associates or to make an appointment, please call us at 713-441-1100 or 888-361-4375, or contact us online.