An arrhythmia is a disruption in the regularity of the heartbeat. Arrhythmias are actually quite common; many people are living with an arrhythmia and they are totally unaware of it. In some cases, an arrhythmia may be more serious, requiring medical intervention and treatment. Since the heart is such an important organ, regular checkups should always include an assessment of heart function, because it is essential that the heart work properly. Various diagnostic tools such as electrocardiograms can be used to get a better picture of heart rhythms.
In normal people, the heart beats very steadily in a classic “lub-dub” pattern, reflecting the flow of blood through the chambers of the heart. In someone with an arrhythmia, the muscle contractions of the heart do not follow a normal pattern, with the heart beating too slowly, too quickly, or in an extremely irregular fashion, missing beats or spacing beats in a strange way. Sometimes, the patient may be aware that his or her heart beats irregularly; this can be distressing or irritating, depending on the type of arrhythmia.
When someone's heart beats too slowly, it is known as bradycardia. This condition is common in athletes, who have conditioned their hearts for hard activity. A heartbeat which is abnormally rapid is called a tachycardia. Other arrhythmias have different names; these two are most common and well known. Another type of arrhythmia, a fibrillation, is extremely serious, reflecting a quivering of the heart muscle, rather than a strong contraction. Fibrillation will result in death if it is not treated.
There are a number of causes for arrhythmias, including stress, congenital heart disease, drug use, and general aging. Diet, exercise, and other medical conditions may also have an impact on heart health. Some people notice that their hearts seem to beat irregularly during high stress events; this is a normal stress response, although it can be distracting. Other individuals experience random arrhythmias, such as heart palpitations which do not appear to be related to stress. These arrhythmias may indicate a more serious problem.
When an arrhythmia is diagnosed, the next step depends on the type of arrhythmia. For many people, nothing is done, although the patient may be encouraged to eat a heart healthy diet, or to be more aware of his or her heart functions, reporting abnormal events to a doctor. In other instances, medication may be prescribed to treat the arrhythmia. An extreme arrhythmia may be treated with an implanted medical device which shocks the heart to force it into a regular rhythm.