Heart rhythm problems, or arrhythmias, occur when the electrical impulses
that coordinate your heartbeat don't work properly, causing your heart
to beat too fast, too slow or irregularly.
A heartbeat that is too fast is called a tachycardia and one that is too
slow is called a bradycardia.
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is an arrhythmia with an irregular and often rapid
heartbeat that causes decreased blood flow to the body. During AF, the
atria (the heart’s two upper chambers) beat out of sync with the
ventricles (the heart’s two lower chambers). AF can be occasional
with symptoms that come and go from minutes to hours, or chronic with
symptoms that will not resolve without treatment.
Though most arrhythmias are harmless, some can be life-threatening. During
an arrhythmia, the heart may not pump enough blood through the body, which
can cause damage to the heart, brain and other organs.
The causes of arrhythmias are often unknown, although factors such as smoking,
alcohol use, drug use, over-the-counter medication or too much caffeine
or nicotine are known to provoke them.
People with AF can lead normal and active lives. Treatments are available
that can help control symptoms and prevent complications, including medications,
medical procedures and positive lifestyle changes.
AF is not usually immediately life-threatening; it is a significant medical
issue that requires prompt medical attention, evaluation and diagnostic workup.
Symptoms of AF
Some people with AF will not experience symptoms and will only learn they
have it from their doctor. Others may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Palpitations (feelings that your heart is skipping a beat, fluttering or
beating too hard or fast)
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness or problems exercising
- Dizziness or fainting
- Chest pain–this requires immediate medical attention
AF Risk Factors
If you have AF, your risk of stroke increases up to five times. AF can
also lead to heart failure. Other risk factors include:
- Heart attack, heart failure or cardiomyopathy
- Heart tissue that is too thick, stiff or hasn’t formed normally
- Leaking or narrowed heart valves
- Congenital heart defects
- High blood pressure
- Damage to the heart muscles
- Sleep apnea
- Overactive or underactive thyroid glands
Heart Rhythm Tests
- An electrocardiogram (an ECG or EKG) to monitor heartbeats during rest
- A Holter monitor to record the heartbeats over a 24-hour period or longer
- An event monitor to record heart rhythm when active
- An exercise stress test, often taken on a treadmill, to detect more irregular
rhythms during physical activity
- A tilt table test, for those who experience lightheadedness or fainting
Treatment plans for arrhythmia can include:
- Using ablation (radio wave energy) to destroy specific areas of the heart
that are causing the rhythm abnormality
- Implanting a pacemaker for those hearts that are beating too slowly
- Implanting a defibrillator for those hearts that are beating too rapidly
Know Your Pulse
Your pulse is one tool to help get a picture of your health. Even if you’re
not an athlete, knowledge about your heart rate can help you monitor your
fitness level, and it might even help you spot developing health problems.
Your heart rate, or pulse, is the number of times your heart beats per
minute. Normal heart rates vary from person to person. Knowing your heart
rate can be an important heart-health gauge.
You can find your pulse on your wrists, the inside of your elbow, the side
of your neck, or the top of your foot. To get the most accurate reading,
put your finger over your pulse and count the number of beats in 60 seconds.
If you’re on a beta blocker to decrease your heart rate (and lower
blood pressure) or to control another common abnormal rhythm (arrhythmia),
your doctor may ask you to monitor and log your heart rate.
Keeping tabs on your heart rate can help your doctor determine whether
to change the dosage or switch to a different medication.
Call Your Doctor
If your pulse is very low, or if you have frequent episodes of unexplained
fast heart rates, especially if they cause you to feel weak or dizzy or
faint, tell your doctor, who can decide if it’s an emergency.
Read more about our heart program at MWHC at