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Heart arrhythmia is the medical term for an abnormal heart rhythm or irregular heartbeat. An arrhythmia is most easily thought of as an ‘electrical’ problem with the heart.1
The heart’s rhythm is controlled by electrical signals from the heart’s natural pacemaker. An arrhythmia means the heartbeat is too slow, too fast, or irregular.
This occurs when the electrical signals from the pacemaker are interrupted or distorted.1 This can happen in many different ways. The severity of arrhythmia can range from minor inconvenience to potentially fatal.
There are five main types of heart arrhythmia
- Atrial fibrillation - This is the most common type of arrhythmia, where the heart beats irregularly and faster than normal
- Supraventricular tachycardia - This involves periods of abnormally fast heart rate when you’re at rest
- Bradycardia - This type of arrhythmia is where the heart beats slower than normal
- Heart block - This is also where the heart beats more slowly than normal, and it can cause people to collapse
- Ventricular fibrillation - This a rare heart rhythm disorder where the heartbeat is very rapid and irregular, and it leads to rapid loss of consciousness and can be fatal if not treated immediately2
What do I need to know?
Heart arrhythmias are common, affecting more than 2 million people each year in the UK. As long as it’s properly diagnosed, most people with an abnormal or irregular heart beat can live a completely normal life.
The signs to look out for include palpitations, feeling dizzy, fainting and being short of breath, although having these symptoms does not always mean you have an arrhythmia2.
It’s always worth getting symptoms checked, because an arrhythmia can be caused by a more serious underlying heart condition. To diagnose a heart arrhythmia, a cardiologist or electrophysiologist will take a recording of your heart rhythm called an electrocardiogram (ECG). Sometimes, you might need to wear a portable ECG recorder for 24 hours. If exercise seems to trigger the symptoms, you might need to run on a treadmill or use an exercise bike while an ECG is taken2.
Risk factors for arrhythmia
- Age - Although arrhythmias can affect people of any age, atrial fibrillation (the most common type) occurs more frequently among older people
- Alcohol - Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol increases the risk of developing atrial fibrillation
- Weight - Being overweight increases the risk of developing atrial fibrillation
- Heart damage -The risk of arrhythmia is increased if the heart is already damaged as a result of heart attack or heart failure2
- Viral illnesses - If you have a latent heart rhythm disorder, becoming ill can trigger an episode
- Exercise - Increasing your heart rate through exercise can trigger certain types of arrhythmia2
It’s not always possible to prevent an arrhythmia from developing. However, a healthy lifestyle reduces the risk of developing either an arrhythmia or any other heart condition.
Treating a heart arrhythmia
There are different treatments for different types of heart arrhythmia, and they sit alongside treatments for the underlying causes for heart arrhythmia such as heart failure. Treating heart arrhythmias sits within the wider field of cardiology, which is concerned with all aspects of heart health.
- Medication - There are medications available to control arrhythmias and prevent episodes
- Cardioversion - This is a treatment which uses an electrical pulse to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm while you are anaesthetised or sedated
- Catheter ablation - This is a keyhole treatment which is carried out under local or general anesthetic and aims to carefully destroy diseased heart tissue
- Pacemaker - This is a small device that replicates the action of the natural pacemaker in your heart, producing electrical signals to help your heart beat at a normal rate
- ICD - This is a device similar to a pacemaker that detects when the heart rhythm becomes irregular and shocks it back into a normal rhythm2
To find out more heart arrhythmias, please read our interview with Trudie Lobban MBE, the founder and trustee of Arrhythmia Alliance. You can also learn more about the diagnosis and treatment of heart conditions, here.
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