As the phrase suggests, an “arrhythmia” is any kind of abnormal heart rhythm. But what exactly does that mean? And what are the implications for your health?
In order to better understand what an arrhythmia is, remember that your heart is a pump. The heart, which is composed of four chambers and four valves, pumps blood continuously through the circulatory system in a sequence of highly organized contractions that are controlled by the heart’s electrical system. When these electrical impulses are transmitted normally, the heart is able to beat, and thus pump, at a regular pace. In the average adult, the heart beats between 60 and 100 times a minute and pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood every day.
However, in an arrhythmia, this normal sequence of electrical impulses is disrupted. The result is an abnormal heart rate that is either too slow (known as bradycardia, which is a heart rate of less than 60 beats per minute), too fast (known as tachycardia, which is more than 100 beats per minute), or erratic. Arrhythmias can be caused or provoked by a wide range of factors, including addictive substances and certain chemical agents. People with certain congenital or acquired conditions, such as heart disease, may also be more prone to arrhythmias than others. To a person experiencing an arrhythmia, it may feel like a barely noticeable skipped heartbeat or a fluttering in the chest or neck. An arrhythmia may also cause feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness.
While some arrhythmias are so brief as to be virtually harmless, others can have a critical impact on your health if they are severe or prolonged. The reason is that an arrhythmia prevents your heart from pumping blood properly or efficiently which, in turn, means that the body’s other organs, like the lungs and brain, cannot function correctly and may sustain damage, or shut down altogether.
In order to diagnose an arrhythmia, your doctor will use an electrocardiogram to determine the arrhythmia’s location and whether it’s abnormal. The treatment for arrythmia may include medications, lifestyle changes, surgery, or a pacemaker to help the heart beat regularly.