More Americans Diagnosed With Heart Arrhythmias

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Most people occasionally feel as though their heart is racing or skipping a beat. But, if that feeling gets out of control or happens often, it could be a sign of a serious health issue.

Arrhythmia is a heart condition in which the heart beats irregularly, for example, beating too fast or too slow. This glitch in the heart’s rhythm is created when the electrical impulses that coordinate heartbeats don’t function properly.

Today, more Americans are being diagnosed with arrhythmias because of increased awareness and better diagnostic tools, said Abdul Wase, MD, an electrophysiologist and a fellow of the Heart Rhythm Society.

“There are people walking around with an arrhythmia who might not know it,” Dr. Wase said. “Take, for example, atrial fibrillation (AFib) – the most common type of arrhythmia – where the heart can beat too fast. We know that for every AFib episode a person feels, there are at least two asymptomatic episodes that can only be detected through monitoring.”

There are two main kinds of arrhythmias – bradycardia and tachycardia. Bradycardia is when the heart rate is too slow, beating less than 60 beats per minute. Tachycardia is when the heart rate is too fast, beating more than 100 beats per minute.

There are also different subtypes of cardiac arrhythmias, some of which are less serious and more of a bother, and others of which can lead to serious health issues.

Other types of arrhythmia include:

  • Conduction disorders, impairment of the electrical impulses that control the heartbeat
  • Premature contraction, an early heartbeat, which can feel like your heart skipped a beat
  • Ventricular fibrillation, also known as VFib, which is the most serious type of arrhythmia and is life-threatening. In this case, the lower chambers (ventricles) of the heart quiver and can’t pump blood, which causes cardiac arrest.

It is estimated that more than 4 million Americans suffer from recurring arrhythmias, according to the American Heart Association.

Most arrhythmias are treatable and even curable, Dr. Wase said, but the condition can become serious and even fatal if not discovered.

An arrhythmia often has no symptoms when it’s brief. It might feel like a skipped heartbeat that a person barely notices. Other people, however, feel like they have a fluttering in their chest or neck.

Severe arrhythmias last for a long period of time and can actually affect the way the heart functions. The heart might not be able to pump enough blood to the body, causing symptoms including fatigue lightheadedness, and loss of consciousness. In extreme cases, it causes death.

Diagnosing Arrhythmia

The good news is that patients today have hope with advanced treatments for arrhythmias, including medication and minimally invasive surgery.

Electrophysiologists like Dr. Wase find the source of the arrhythmia before choosing treatment. An EKG is often used to diagnose arrhythmias. The EKG records the heart’s electrical impulses.

Other tests include exercise stress tests and electrophysiological studies, which help map the heart’s electrical system. Arrhythmias that happen infrequently require a monitor that can be worn up to four weeks, Dr. Wase said.

Symptoms Of Arrhythmia

Arrhythmias can occur without signs or symptoms. But when there are symptoms, the most common ones include:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Palpitations, which means feeling your heart beating in a different rhythm than it usually does or should be
  • Pauses between heartbeats
  • Slow heartbeat

Some arrhythmias can cause more serious signs and symptoms, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Weakness, dizziness, and light-headedness

Risk Factors For Arrhythmia

It’s important for people to understand the risk factors for arrhythmias since the condition can increase the chances of having a heart attack or stroke. Risk factors include:

  • Age. Normal aging is associated with a variety of changes to the cardiovascular system. Studies show the risk of arrhythmias increases you get older.
  • Genetics. Men are at a slightly higher risk for developing an arrhythmia than women. However, women diagnosed with arrhythmias carry a longer-term risk of premature death, according to the AHA. You're at higher risk for arrhythmias if heart disease runs in your family.
  • Certain diseases. Having a thyroid disease, diabetes, and hypertension all make you more likely to have an arrhythmia.
  • Lifestyle choices. Using tobacco, drinking alcohol excessively and using stimulant drugs (including caffeine) raises your risk of arrhythmia. 

Dr. Wase encourages you to work with your physician to take steps to manage the risk factors that you can control. The risk for the irregular heartbeats can be avoided or lessened by taking steps to lose weight, eat healthy, lower cholesterol, manage hypertension, and avoid substance use.

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