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Published on September 26, 2018

woman with hand on her chest

Arrhythmias: What’s Up With My Heart?

With the sun setting and cool evening air, you and your son are tossing the football back and forth, catching up on school and when the homecoming game will be so you won’t miss it.

A voice calls, announcing that supper is ready so you both head for the house.

As you hang up your jacket and set the football on the shelf, your hand lands on your chest. There isn’t any pain, but your heart thunders quickly under your shirt. It started as soon as you reached the house, but now seems to be fading as you walk toward the kitchen table.

These episodes happen from time to time out of nowhere. They seem harmless, but you’d hate to overlook something important. What’s up with your heart?

Arrhythmia is a general term that describes any abnormal heart rhythm — whether too slow, too fast, skipping beats or irregular beats. These abnormalities may surface occasionally, and can be life-threatening or harmless.

“A variety of factors can contribute to the development of arrhythmia,” said Jonathon C. Adams, MD, FACC, FHRS, specialist in electrophysiology and cardiovascular disease at North Central Heart, a division of Avera Heart Hospital. “While some arrhythmias are related to genetic abnormalities, others are associated with aging, obesity, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, prior heart attack or congestive heart failure.”

So what might signal that your heart is out of beat? Arrhythmia symptoms may include noticeable heart palpitations or heart pounding, dizziness, fatigue, feeling faint or loss of consciousness.

The most common types include:

  • Atrial fibrillation (AF) – Rapid irregular beating of the upper chambers of the heart. AF is associated with an increased risk of stroke, and highly correlated with aging. AF currently affects 9 percent of the population over age 65.
  • Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) – Rapid beating of the upper chambers of the heart that is more organized.
  • Ventricular tachycardia (VT) – A rapid heart rate that originates in the lower chambers of the heart. VT can be life-threatening.

Like stated before, not all arrhythmias will cause harm. “Abnormalities in the upper chambers are less likely to be life-threatening than abnormalities occurring in the lower chamber,” explained Adams.

And one of these millions of people could be you. In most cases, irregular heartbeats are found by the primary care provider with just a stethoscope or electrocardiogram. Other times, a heart monitoring device may be necessary to record the patient’s heart rhythm at the time of his or her symptoms. After baseline testing, a referral would be made to a heart specialist — like Adams — for further diagnosis and proper care.

Adams specializes in cardiac electrophysiology, which is the medical specialty focused on proper diagnosis and treatment of cardiac arrhythmias.

In many cases, a prescription might suffice. For example, commonly prescribed medications such as beta blockers and calcium channel blockers slow conduction through the heart’s electrical system, making arrhythmia less likely to occur.

It is also important to promote healthy lifestyle choices because arrhythmias tend to be more frequent in patients with obesity, poorly controlled blood pressure, and other forms of cardiovascular disease such as coronary artery disease or congestive heart failure.

However, when simple medications aren’t completely effective, specific anti-arrhythmic drugs or invasive procedures, such as catheter ablation, may be necessary.

“Ablation is a procedure that intentionally damages focused areas of the heart that may be promoting rapid or irregular heartbeats,” said Adams. “If the procedure is successful, the heart returns to beating normally and pumping blood efficiently.”

Your heart is the most important muscle in your body; take its warnings seriously! If something seems peculiar, it’s best not to wait. Your local family and cardiac providers are your number one ally in helping you stay heart healthy, whether through lifestyle management or other personalized treatment plans.

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