Irregular heartbeats are known as arrhythmias, and they can be caused by circular electrical activity. That may happen because of a condition, including Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome. Medications or surgery may be possible for treatment.

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If you feel like your heart is beating to a different rhythm you’re not alone. Irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias impact up to 5% people in the United States.

One potential cause for heart arrhythmia is circular electrical activity. In some cases, this circular electrical activity may be connected with WPW syndrome or atrioventricular nodal reentry tachycardia (AVNRT).

Read on to learn more about heart arrhythmia caused by electrical activity trapped in a circular pattern, including causes, diagnosis, and possible treatments.

In a typical heart, electrical impulses begin in the sinus node in the upper right section of the heart muscle. From there, the impulses travel to the atria, or upper heart chambers. This is where the contraction starts.

Another node called the atrioventricular (AV) node sends the impulse to the lower heart chambers called the ventricles. This causes them to contract. Ventricular contraction is what causes blood to be pumped out of the heart.

In some hearts, an extra electrical pathway can interfere with this normal pattern. It can create a shortcut for the electrical impulses causing the heart to beat too quickly or at the wrong time.

There are several different ways extra electrical pathways can form and an individual may be diagnosed with a specific medical condition depending on how and why the electrical activity is trapped in a circular pattern. For example, AVNRT refers to a reentry circuit within or next to the AV node.

Another possible cause is AV reentrant tachycardia (AVRT). This is similar to AVNRT, but the pathway connecting the atria and ventricles is not in the AV node.

As it happens, WPW — which is a possible cause of heart arrhythmia due to circular electrical activity — is a specific type of AVRT.

Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome

WPW syndrome is a birth irregularity where the heart develops an “aberrant” or extra electrical passageway. It affects 1 to 3 people out of every 1,000 worldwide and can result in tachycardia or a rapid heart rate.

Medications may be used to help ease the symptoms of WPW syndrome, but a surgical procedure is often required to destroy the extra passageway and return a normal heart rhythm.

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A heart arrhythmia is not the same as a heart attack.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. When there’s insufficient oxygen-rich blood flowing to the heart, the heart muscle can be damaged.

In some cases, a heart attack can cause damage that leads to an irregular heartbeat or heart arrhythmia, but they’re still separate medical conditions.

Both heart attacks and heart arrhythmias can share some of the same side effects, such as feelings of anxiety and panic or trouble breathing.

Rapid heart rate is one of the first signs you may notice if you have heart arrhythmia caused by circular electrical activity.

For children, teenagers, and adults, signs and symptoms of a heart arrhythmia can include:

Other signs and symptoms of heart arrhythmia in infants can include:

  • lethargy and severe fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid, visible pulsation of the chest
  • lack of appetite

For some individuals, symptoms may not appear or appear only periodically.

If left untreated, heart arrhythmias can damage the heart.

Heart arrhythmias can also increase the risk for:

In extremely rare situations, heart arrhythmias can result in sudden death, so it’s important to not delay speaking with your doctor if you believe you may have one.

There are a variety of ways to treat heart arrhythmia caused by circular electrical activity, depending on the severity of the symptoms an individual is experiencing.

Medications

Medications may be used to treat abnormal heart rhythms. Some anti-arrhythmic drugs that may be prescribed include beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, flecainide, or propafenone.

Catheter ablation

A surgical procedure called catheter ablation is sometimes used to destroy the extra electrical pathway.

In this procedure, a tiny catheter will be inserted through a blood vessel near the groin and threaded up to the heart. When it reaches the heart, the electrodes are heated to destroy the area that’s causing the abnormal heartbeat.

Electrical cardioversion

This involves an electrical shock to the heart to hopefully restore the normal rhythm. Done under anesthesia, this is frequently reserved for emergency situations or individuals who have not had success with other treatments.

Surgery

If open heart surgery is required to treat another heart condition, the surgeon may also attempt to address the extra electrical pathway during this procedure.

If you’re not experiencing any symptoms, your doctor may suggest waiting for treatment with follow-up appointments scheduled to continue to monitor your heart’s function. A pacemaker and lifestyle changes like avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco may be suggested.

Extra electrical pathways in the heart can result in heart arrhythmia. A racing heart rate, difficulty breathing, and even feelings of anxiety are some potential signs that you may have a heart arrhythmia.

Your doctor may suggest medications or surgery if you have a heart arrhythmia caused by circular electrical activity. They’ll factor in the severity of your symptoms, health history, and personal preferences when making a treatment recommendation.