By: Holy Name Medical Center
Most people know the feeling – like your heart is skipping a beat, or it’s thumping so fast it feels as if it may never slow down. Often, these irregular heartbeats are caused by anxiety or exertion. But they can indicate a larger problem.
“Sometimes stress or a panic disorder can mimic the symptoms of an arrhythmia,” explains Dr. Shalin Desai, a cardiac electrophysiologist with Holy Name Medical Partners. “Don’t leave it to chance. Be mindful of your heart at all times.”
Heartbeats that are too fast, too slow or otherwise irregular may be harmless but should not be ignored as some can lead to harmful symptoms or heart injury. Specifically, heart rhythm disorders, called arrhythmias, can predispose a person to stroke, heart failure or even death and can signal underlying cardiac damage. Arrhythmias might also cause someone to faint or fall, leading to serious injury.
Arrhythmias are more common in older people, but they can happen at any age. Lifestyle factors like obesity, high blood pressure and smoking can also play a role in causing them to develop.
Be aware of the symptoms of arrhythmias, which can include:
- palpitations or fluttering of the heart
- shortness of breath
- exercise intolerance
- chest pain and pressure
“We have a full roster of diagnostic tools to identify the source of a heart rhythm disorder, including electrocardiograms [EKGs], cardiac stress tests, and wearable heart monitors,” notes Dr. Desai. “Treatments typically involve medication to suppress the arrhythmia.”
A short circuit in the heart’s electricity
A simple way of describing an arrhythmia is a short circuit in the heart’s electrical system. The normal human resting heart rate averages 60 to 100 beats per minute; anything outside that range is considered an arrhythmia. If the rate is too fast – up to 100 beats a minute — it’s called tachycardia. When it’s too slow – less than 60 beats a minute – it’s known as bradycardia.
Types of tachycardia
There are two types of tachycardia: supraventricular, which occurs in the upper chambers of the heart, and ventricular tachycardia, which happens in the lower chambers.
Supraventricular tachycardia occurs when the heart beats too fast. Heart palpitations begin and end abruptly. Two of the most common arrhythmias are atrial fibrillation (AFib), a rapid and irregular heartbeat, and atrial flutter, which is similar, but the rapid heartbeats are more regular.
Both of these can lead to more serious complications, such as a stroke. They each require medications to control the heart rate and blood thinners to reduce the risk of stroke.
Ventricular tachycardia can be more serious as it interferes with the process of blood being pumped to the rest of the body. It often means there is underlying heart disease, such as coronary artery blockages and clots.
Bradycardia occurs when the heart beats too slowly to provide sufficient blood flow to the body. In severe cases, bradycardia can cause people to experience severe fatigue and even faint.
However, be aware that a slow heart rate is not always a problem. Some people who are particularly physically fit can efficiently pump an adequate supply of blood with less than 60 beats per minute while their heart is at rest.
Medications and other treatments
The goal of treatment is to restore the heart’s rhythmic electrical impulses to normal. Depending on the needs of each patient, physicians at Holy Name Medical Center will choose the most appropriate treatment, including medications, blood thinners, an implantable pacemaker, a defibrillator, or a combination of these approaches.
“Never delay getting a medical evaluation if you have symptoms of a heart rhythm disorder,” says Dr. Desai. “If your symptoms are severe, call 9-1-1 and get to the nearest emergency room.”
Shalin P. Desai, MD, is a cardiologist with special clinical training in electrophysiology. He is board-certified in cardiovascular disease, clinical cardiac adult echocardiography, clinical cardiac electrophysiology, nuclear cardiology and internal medicine. To make an in-person or telemedicine appointment with him, call 201-833-2300 or visit https://www.holyname.org/medicalpartners/profile.aspx?phyid=84193. To read more healthcare-related content visit holyname.org/blog.