The heart normally beats at a regular rhythm or pace to supply the heart, lungs, and other tissues of the body with a steady, predictable supply of blood and oxygen. When the heartbeat is irregular, this is called an arrhythmia, or a dysrhythmia. The many different types of arrhythmias include:
- bradycardia (slower than normal heartbeat)
- tachycardia (faster than normal heartbeat)
- atrial fibrillation, a condition in which there is an irregular heartbeat caused by an issue with the electrical signal in the heart, causing the atrium to contract
- ventrical fibrillation, a condition in which there is an irregular heartbeat caused by an issue with the electrical signal in the heart, causing the ventricle to contract
- premature contraction, a condition in which the heart has an extra early beat that makes the normal rhythm irregular
- atrial flutter
Many people live everyday with arrhythmias. Some don’t even know it because there aren’t always symptoms or signs. While anyone can develop an arrhythmia, there are certain factors that place people at risk for developing them.
People who already have a heart condition are at risk for developing an arrhythmia. This is because some heart conditions change the way the heart works, and over time this will in turn cause the heart to change its beat or pace.
Coronary Heart Disease
Scarring on the heart or the blood vessels or a buildup of plaque make it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. This can slow the rate of the heart, causing an arrhythmia.
Heart Attack or Heart Failure
People who have had heart attacks or heart failure are at increased risk for arrhythmias because this can change the heart’s electrical impulses.
This is an inflammation of the heart muscle, and people with this condition often have atrial fibrillation.
Heart Valve Disease
Leaky or weak heart valves can cause changes in the way the heart beats.
Congenital Heart Disorders
Sometimes people are born with heart conditions that affect the way the heart works, and the heart is unable to produce a normal heartbeat.
In addition, if you have ever had heart surgery, you are at increased risk for developing an arrhythmia.
Other conditions can also place you at an increased risk for an arrhythmia. This includes:
- chronic lung disease
- pulmonary embolism (a clot that develops in the lungs)
- emphysema (a disorder of the lungs cause by smoking)
- sleep apnea
- thyroid disorder
- high blood pressure
- chemical imbalance (lack of potassium, magnesium, calcium or other chemicals in the body necessary for maintaining a regular rhythm)
Age, gender, and lifestyle factors can also play a role in the development of arrhythmia. People over 60 are more likely to develop an arrhythmia than younger people. This is because they are at increased risk for heart disease and often take medications that affect the heart’s rhythm. In addition, some types of arrhythmia are more common in certain genders. For example, men are more likely to develop atrial fibrillation than women.
What you eat and drink can also have an effect on your heart’s rhythm. People who consume alcohol and other stimulants, like caffeine, are more likely to develop an arrhythmia. Drugs, including some cardiac medications that treat heart conditions, can cause an arrhythmia. If you smoke, you are more likely to have an arrhythmia.
Some people with arrhythmias live active, healthy lives, and in some cases, don’t even know they have an irregular heartbeat. However, sometimes if these conditions are not detected and treated, serious and life-threatening problems like cardiac arrest or a stroke can happen.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing an arrhythmia. Be sure to check your blood pressure regularly. Exercise on a regular basis to reduce weight gain, and eat a healthy diet that promotes lower cholesterol levels. If you smoke, make a commitment to start a smoking cessation program, as smoking is a major risk factor for arrhythmia.