Facts About Arrhythmias and Rhythm Disorders

What is an arrhythmia?
An arrhythmia is a change in the regular beat of the heart. The heart may seem to skip a beat or beat irregularly or very fast or very slowly.

Does having an arrhythmia mean that a person has heart disease?
No, not necessarily. Many arrhythmias occur in people who do not have underlying heart disease.

What causes arrhythmias?
Many times, there is no recognizable cause of an arrhythmia. Heart disease may cause arrhythmias. Other causes include: stress, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, diet pills, and cough and cold medicines.

Are arrhythmias serious?
The vast majority of people with arrhythmias have nothing to fear. They do not need extensive exams or special treatments for their condition. In some people, arrhythmias are associated with heart disease. In these cases, heart disease, not the arrhythmia, poses the greatest risk to the patient.

In a very small number of people with serious symptoms, arrhythmias themselves are dangerous. These arrhythmias require medical treatment to keep the heartbeat regular.  For example, a few people have a very slow heartbeat (bradycardia), causing them to feel lightheaded or faint. Some people may have very rapid heart rhythms from the bottom part of the heart (ventricular tachycardia). If left untreated, this dangerous heart rhythm could lead to death.

How common are arrhythmias?
Arrhythmias occur commonly in middle-age adults. As people get older, they are more likely to experience an arrhythmia.

What are the symptoms of an arrhythmia?
Most people have felt their heart beat very fast, experienced a fluttering in their chest, or noticed that their heart skipped a beat. Almost everyone has also felt dizzy, faint, or out of breath or had chest pains at one time or another. One of the most common arrhythmias is sinus arrhythmia, the change in heart rate that can occur normally when we take a breath. Experiencing irregular heart beats may cause anxiety, but for the majority of people, they are completely harmless.

You should not panic if you experience a few flutters or your heart races occasionally. But if you have questions about your heart rhythm or symptoms, check with your doctor.

More tests may be used to check for an arrhythmia and to decide whether it is caused by heart disease.