What is an arrhythmia?

The heart normally beats at a regular rhythm to supply the body’s heart, lungs, and other tissues with a steady, predictable supply of blood and oxygen. An irregular heartbeat is known as an arrhythmia, or a dysrhythmia.

Many people live everyday with arrhythmias. Some don’t even know it because there aren’t always symptoms. While anyone can develop an arrhythmia, there are certain factors that place people at risk for developing them.

There are different types of arrhythmias that include:

  • bradycardia, which is a slower than normal heartbeat
  • tachycardia, which is a faster than normal heartbeat
  • atrial fibrillation, which is caused by electrical signals in the heart that cause an irregular heartbeat and cause the atrium to contract faster and more often than the ventricle contracts
  • ventricular fibrillation, which is caused by the ventricle contracting very fast
  • premature contraction, which is when the heart has an extra, early beat that makes an irregular rhythm
  • atrial flutter, which is a condition where the heart’s atria beat too fast

People with a preexisting heart condition are at risk for developing an arrhythmia. Some heart conditions change the way the heart works, and over time this can cause the heart to change its beat or pace. Some of the risk factors include:

Coronary heart disease

Coronary heart disease is caused by a buildup of plaque or scarring on the heart or the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart muscle. The plaque buildup makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. This can slow heart rate, causing an arrhythmia.

Heart attack or heart failure

Heart attacks or heart failure can change the heart’s electrical impulses, leading to an increased risk of arrhythmia.


Endocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle. 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, which can cause arrhythmias.

Congenital heart disorders

Sometimes people are born with heart conditions that affect the way the heart works. When this happens, the heart may be unable to produce a normal heartbeat.

Also, if you have ever had heart surgery, you have an increased risk for developing an arrhythmia.

Age, gender, and lifestyle

Age, gender, and lifestyle factors can also play a role in the development of arrhythmia. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that people over the age of 60 are more likely to develop a more serious arrhythmia. Older people are at increased risk for heart disease and often take medications that affect the heart’s rhythm.

According to the American Heart Association, some types of arrhythmia are more common in certain genders. For example, men are slightly 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’re more likely to have an arrhythmia.

Other conditions

Other conditions can also place you at an increased risk for an arrhythmia, including:

  • diabetes
  • chronic lung disease
  • pulmonary embolism, which is a clot that develops in the lungs
  • emphysema, which is a disorder of the lungs
  • asthma
  • sleep apnea
  • thyroid disorder
  • high blood pressure
  • chemical imbalance that can occur due to a lack of potassium, magnesium, calcium, or other chemicals in the body necessary for maintaining a regular heart rhythm

Some people with arrhythmias live active, healthy lives, and in some cases, don’t even know they have an irregular heartbeat. However, if left undetected or untreated, 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.

  • Check your blood pressure regularly.
  • Exercise on a regular basis.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet that promotes lower cholesterol levels.
  • If you smoke, make a commitment to start a smoking cessation program. Smoking is a major risk factor for arrhythmia.