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An arrhythmia is an abnormality in the heart's rhythm, or heartbeat pattern. The heartbeat can be too slow, too fast, have extra beats, skip a beat, or otherwise beat irregularly.
Arrhythmias are deviations from the normal cadence of the heartbeat, which cause the heart to pump improperly. The normal heartbeat starts in the right atrium, where the heart's natural pacemaker (the sinus node) sends an electrical signal to the center of the heart to the atrioventricular node. The atrioventricular node then sends signals into the main pumping chamber to make the ventricle contract. Arrhythmias occur when the heartbeat starts in a part of the heart other than the sinus node, an abnormal rate or rhythm develops in the sinus node, or a heart conduction "block" prevents the electrical signal from traveling down the normal pathway.
More than four million Americans have arrhythmias, most of which are harmless. Middle-aged adults commonly experience arrhythmias. As people age, the probability of experiencing an arrhythmia increases. Arrhythmias often occur in people who do not have heart disease. In people with heart disease, it is usually the heart disease which is dangerous, not the arrhythmia. Arrhythmias often occur during and after heart attacks. Some types of arrhythmias, such as ventricular tachycardia, are serious and even life threatening. In the United States, arrhythmias are the primary cause of sudden cardiac death, accounting for more than 350,000 deaths each year.
Slow heart rates (less than 60 beats per minute) are called bradycardias, while fast heart rates (more than 100 beats per minute) are called tachycardias. Bradycardia can result in poor circulation of blood, and, hence, a lack of oxygen throughout the body, especially the brain. Tachycardias also can compromise the heart's ability to pump effectively because the ventricles do not have enough time to completely fill.
Arrhythmias are characterized by their site of origin: the atria or the ventricles. Supraventricular arrhythmias occur in the upper areas of the heart and are less serious than ventricular arrhythmias. Ventricular fibrillation is the most serious arrhythmia and is fatal unless medical help is immediate.
Causes and symptoms
In many cases, the cause of an arrhythmia is unknown. Known causes of arrhythmias include heart disease, stress, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, diet pills, and decongestants in cough and cold medicines.
Symptoms of an arrhythmia include a fast heart-beat, pounding or fluttering chest sensations, skipping a heartbeat, "flip-flops," dizziness, faintness, shortness of breath, and chest pains.
Bradycardia — A slow heart rate. Bradycardia is one of the two types of arrhythmia
Electrocardiogram — A test which uses electric sensors placed on the body to monitor the heartbeat.
Electrophysiology study — A test using cardiac catheterization to stimulate an electrical current to provoke an arrhythmia. The test identifies the origin of arrhythmias and is used to test the effectiveness of antiarrhythmic drugs.
Tachycardia — A fast heart rate. Tachycardia is one of the two types of arrhythmia.
Examination with a stethoscope, electrocardiograms, and electrophysiologic studies is used to diagnose arrhythmias. Sometimes arrhythmias can be identified by listening to the patient's heart through a stethoscope, but, since arrhythmias are not always present, they may not occur during the physical exam.
An electrocardiogram (ECG) shows the heart's activity and may reveal a lack of oxygen from poor circulation (ischemia). Electrodes covered with conducting jelly are placed on the patient's chest, arms, and legs. They send impulses of the heart's activity through an electrical activity monitor (oscilloscope) to a recorder that traces them on paper. The test takes about 10 minutes and is performed in a physician's office. Another type of ECG, commonly known as the exercise stress test, measures how the heart and blood vessels respond to exertion while the patient is exercising on a treadmill or a stationary bike. This test is performed in a physician's office or an exercise laboratory and takes 15-30 minutes. Other types of ECGs include 24-hour ECG monitoring and transtelephonic monitoring. In 24-hour ECG (Holter) monitoring, the patient wears a small, portable tape recorder connected to disks on his/her chest that record the heart's rhythm during daily activities. Transtelephonic monitoring can identify arrhythmias that occur infrequently. Similar to Holter monitoring, transtelephonic monitoring can continue for days or weeks, and it enables patients to send the ECG via telephone to a monitoring station when an arrhythmia is felt, or the patient can store the information in the recorder and transmit it later.
Electrophysiologic studies are invasive procedures performed in a hospital to identify the origin of serious arrhythmias and responses to various treatments. They involve cardiac catheterization, in which catheters tipped with electrodes are passed from a vein in the arm or leg through the blood vessels into the heart. The electrodes record impulses in the heart, highlighting where the arrhythmia starts. During the procedure, physicians can test the effects of various drugs by provoking an arrhythmia through the electrodes and trying different drugs. The procedure takes one to three hours, during which the patient is awake but mildly sedated. Local anesthetic is injected at the catheter insertion sites.
Many arrhythmias do not require any treatment. For serious arrhythmias, treating the underlying heart disease sometimes controls the arrhythmia. In some cases, the arrhythmia itself is treated with drugs, electrical shock (cardioversion), automatic implantable defibrillators, artificial pacemakers, catheter ablation, or surgery. Supraventricular arrhythmias often can be treated with drug therapy. Ventricular arrhythmias are more complex to treat.
Drug therapy can manage many arrhythmias, but finding the right drug and dose requires care and can take some time. Common drugs for suppressing arrhythmias include beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, quinidine, digitalis preparations, and procainamide. Because of their potential serious side effects, stronger, desensitizing drugs are used only to treat life-threatening arrhythmias. All of the drugs used to treat arrhythmias have possible side effects, ranging from mild complications with beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers to more serious effects of desensitizing drugs that can, paradoxically, cause arrhythmias or make them worse. Response to drugs is usually measured by ECG, Holter monitor, or electrophysiologic study.
In emergency situations, cardioversion or defibrillation (the application of an electrical shock to the chest wall) is used. Cardioversion restores the heart to its normal rhythm. It is followed by drug therapy to prevent recurrence of the arrhythmia.
Artificial pacemakers that send electrical signals to make the heart beat properly can be implanted under the skin during a simple operation. Leads from the pacemaker are anchored to the right side of the heart. Pacemakers are used to correct bradycardia and are sometimes used after surgical or catheter ablation.
Automatic implantable defibrillators correct life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias by recognizing them and then restoring a normal heart rhythm by pacing the heart or giving it an electric shock. They are implanted within the chest wall without major surgery and store information for future evaluation by physicians. Automatic implantable defibrillators have proven to be more effective in saving lives than drugs alone. They often are used in conjunction with drug therapy.
Ablation, a procedure to alter or remove the heart tissue causing the arrhythmia in order to prevent a recurrence, can be performed through a catheter or surgery. Supraventricular tachycardia can be treated successfully with ablation. Catheter ablation is performed in a catheterization laboratory with the patient under sedation. A catheter equipped with a device that maps the heart's electrical pathways is inserted into a vein and is threaded into the heart. High-frequency radio waves are then used to remove the pathway(s) causing the arrhythmia. Surgical ablation is similar in principle but it is performed in a hospital, using a cold probe instead of radio waves to destroy tissue. Ablation treatments are used when medications fail.
Maze surgery treats atrial fibrillation by making multiple incisions through the atrium to allow electrical impulses to move effectively. This is often recommended for patients who have not responded to drugs or cardioversion.
Since some arrhythmias can be life threatening, a conventional medical doctor should always be consulted first. Acupuncture can correct an insignificant number (1.5%) of atrial fibrillation cases. For new, minor arrhythmias, acupuncture may be effective in up to 70% of cases, but this figure may not differ much from placebo therapy. Both western and Chinese herbal remedies are also used in the treatment of arrhythmias. Since hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) dilates the blood vessels and stimulates the heart muscle, it may help to stabilize arrhythmias. It is gentle and appropriate for home use, unlike fox-glove (Digitalis purpurea), an herb whose action on the heart is too potent for use without supervision by a qualified practitioner. Homeopathic practitioners may prescribe remedies such as Lachesis and aconite or monkshood (Aconitum napellus) to treat mild arrhythmias.
Advances in diagnostic techniques, new drugs, and medical technology have extended the lives of many patients with serious arrhythmias. Diagnostic techniques enable physicians to accurately identify arrhythmias, while new drugs, advances in pacemaker technology, the development of implantable defibrillators, and progress in ablative techniques offer effective treatments for many types of arrhythmia.
Some arrhythmias can be prevented by managing stress, controlling anxiety, and avoiding caffeine, alcohol, decongestants, cocaine, and cigarettes.
American Heart Association. 7320 Greenville Ave. Dallas, TX 75231. (214) 373-6300. http://www.americanheart.org.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. PO Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824-0105. (301) 251-1222. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov.
Texas Heart Institute. Heart Information Service. PO Box 20345, Houston, TX 77225-0345. http://www.tmc.edu/thi.