Arrhythmia is a heart condition that affects the normal electrical activity of the heart, causing an irregular heartbeat or abnormal heart rhythm. 

The heart’s electrical signals regulate the contraction and relaxation of its muscles, enabling it to pump blood effectively to the rest of the body. When there is a disruption to this process, the heart may beat too quickly, too slowly or with an irregular pattern. Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of arrhythmia and causes an irregular and fast heartbeat.

Arrhythmias that affect the left ventricle can disrupt the heart’s pumping function and impair blood circulation. The left ventricle is the chamber of the heart responsible for pumping oxygen and nutrients through the blood vessels to the rest of the body.

People with an arrhythmia may experience many symptoms including chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness and irregular heartbeat. Arrhythmias are diagnosed using a range of tests including Holter and event monitors, electrocardiogram, stress testing and electrophysiology studies.

Treatment options for arrhythmia include lifestyle changes and medication. In some cases, patients with arrhythmia may need a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) to regulate the abnormal heart rhythm. Other treatments include catheter ablation and surgery.

Risk Factors

Some conditions may increase the risk of arrhythmia, including:

  • Older age
  • Exposure to air pollutants
  • Genetics and family history
  • Personal habits such as smoking
  • Certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiomyopathy
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Sex
  • Surgical history

Some medical conditions can increase the risk of heart problems. Coronary artery disease can lead to decreased blood flow to the heart muscle, increasing the risk of arrhythmias, particularly during a heart attack or myocardial infarction. 

Symptoms of Arrhythmia

You may be able to notice if your heartbeat seems irregular. Some common symptoms include a rapid heart rate, blurred vision, irregular heartbeat and dizziness. Other arrhythmia symptoms include:

  • Fast heart rate: Some arrhythmias can cause the heart to beat too fast, which is known as tachycardia. This rapid heart rate can lead to palpitations, where a person feels their heart beating strongly or irregularly.
  • Slow heart rate: Other arrhythmias can cause the heart to beat too slowly, known as bradycardia. This can result in dizziness or fainting.
  • Irregular heartbeat: Arrhythmias may cause the heart to beat irregularly, leading to a lack of coordination between the heart’s chambers.
  • Anxiety
  • Blurred vision: In some cases, arrhythmias can cause visual disturbances like blurred vision.
  • Chest pain: Certain arrhythmias, especially those that affect the blood flow to part of the heart muscle, can cause chest pain or discomfort known as angina. 
  • Difficulty breathing: When the heart’s pumping ability is compromised, it can lead to shortness of breath, especially during physical activity. 
  • Fainting or nearly fainting: In some cases, the heart may not pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands, resulting in a sudden loss of consciousness. 
  • Fatigue: Arrhythmias can lead to reduced cardiac output, resulting in a feeling of being tired even with minimal exertion. 
  • Sweating: Profuse sweating may occur during episodes of arrhythmias, particularly if they are associated with a feeling of anxiety or distress.
  • Dizziness: A lack of proper blood flow to the brain can lead to weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness.

The symptoms of arrhythmia can vary depending on the type and severity of the heart rhythm disorder. Some types, such as atrial fibrillation, may cause intermittent symptoms, while others, like ventricular arrhythmias, may result in more severe symptoms and require immediate medical attention.

If you experience any concerning symptoms, especially fainting, persistent shortness of breath, heart palpitations and blurred vision, seek medical attention. In extreme cases, arrhythmias can cause sudden cardiac death. This is an unexpected, non-traumatic loss of heart function. 

Detection and Diagnosis

Arrhythmias can range in severity from harmless and temporary to life-threatening. In some cases, they might not cause noticeable symptoms. However, certain types of arrhythmias can be serious and require medical attention, as they can increase the risk of complications like blood clots, stroke, heart attack or cardiac arrest.

A doctor may ask about your symptoms, medical history and any family history with arrhythmia. Additionally, an EKG or physical exam may be necessary. Lastly, additional tests may be necessary to rule out other potential causes and to help inform your doctor of the best treatment methods.

Arrhythmia Treatment

Treatment can vary depending on the type and severity of your symptoms. Arrhythmia can often be treated successfully with heart-healthy lifestyle changes and medication. Pacemakers and implantable defibrillators, catheter ablation, and cardiac resynchronization therapy can also be used to treat irregular electrical signals in the heart.

Additional treatments and ways to prevent arrhythmias include managing any underlying conditions such as high blood pressure, electrolyte imbalance, heart disease, thyroid disease or sleep apnea.

In cases of life-threatening arrhythmias, an automated external defibrillator may be used to deliver an electric shock to the heart to restore normal heart rhythm.