An abnormal heart rhythm is when your heart beats too fast,
slow, or irregularly. This is also called an arrhythmia.
Within the heart is a complex system of valves, nodes, and
chambers that control how and when the blood is pumped. If the functions of
this vital system are disrupted, damaged, or compromised, it can change the
pattern with which your heart beats. Arrhythmias can cause no symptoms, or you
may feel discomfort, fluttering, pain, or pounding in your chest.
Not all arrhythmias are life-threatening or cause health
complications. To be on the safe side, though, any abnormal heart rhythm should
be reported to your doctor.
The types of abnormal heart rhythms
The most common types of abnormal heart rhythms are:
Tachycardia means that your heart is beating too fast. For example,
a normal heart beats 60 to 100 times per minute in adults. Tachycardia is any
resting heart rate over 100 beats per minute (BPM). There are three subtypes of
tachycardia occurs in the upper chambers of your heart known as the atria.
tachycardia occurs in the lower chambers known as the ventricles.
tachycardia is a normal increase in the heart rate that may occur when
you’re sick or excited. With sinus tachycardia, your heartbeat returns to
normal once you get better or calm down.
This disorganized heart rhythm occurs in the upper chambers
of the heart. It’s the most common arrhythmia. Atrial fibrillation, or AFib,
occurs when many unstable electrical impulses misfire and may result in the
atria quivering out of control. AFib causes the heart rate to increase and
become erratic. It can elevate your heart rate to 100 to 200 BPM, which is a
lot faster than the normal 60 to 100 BPM.
An atrial flutter (AFL) typically occurs in the right
atrium, which is one of the two upper chambers of the heart. However, it may
occur in the left atrium as well. The condition is caused by a single
electrical impulse that travels rapidly in the affected atrium. This often
causes a fast heart rate, but it’s a more regular rhythm.
If you’re bradycardic, it means you have a slow heart rate
(less than 60 BPM). Bradycardia generally occurs when the electrical signals
traveling from the atria to the ventricles become disrupted. Some athletes have
slower heart rates because they are in excellent physical condition, and this
isn’t usually the result of a heart problem.
This type of abnormal rhythm can stop the heart from beating
and cause cardiac arrest. It occurs in the ventricles, where blood unable to
pump out of your heart to the body and brain, due to the irregular heartbeat. Ventricular
fibrillation (VF) is a serious condition that may cause death if it’s not
With most premature contractions, the heart appears to skip
a beat when the pulse is taken in the wrist or chest. The skipped beat is so
faint or weak that it’s not heard or felt.
Other types of premature contractions include extra beats
and early beats. All three types may occur in the upper or lower heart chambers.
What are the symptoms of abnormal heart rhythms?
If you have an abnormal heart rhythm you may experience some
or all of these symptoms:
- feeling faint, dizzy, or light-headed
- shortness of breath
- irregular pulse or heart palpitations
- chest pain
- pale skin
What causes abnormal heart rhythms?
A number of things may cause an abnormal heartbeat,
including high blood pressure. Other common causes are:
Coronary heart disease
This serious heart problem occurs when cholesterol and other
deposits block the coronary arteries.
Some medications or substances may cause your heart rate to
change. These include:
- amphetamines, which are drugs that stimulate the
- beta-blockers, which are used to reduce high
A number of other factors can also cause alterations in your
heart’s rhythm. These include:
- changes in your heart’s muscle after illness or
- healing after heart surgery
- low potassium and other electrolytes
- abnormalities of the heart
- other health conditions
What are the risk factors for abnormal heart rhythms?
The risks for arrhythmia include:
- previous heart conditions, or a family history
of heart conditions
- being overweight
- living a sedentary lifestyle
- a diet high in fats, cholesterol, and other
- high blood pressure or other health problems
- excessive use of alcohol (more than two drinks
- drug abuse
- sleep apnea
Diagnosing abnormal heart rhythms
Your doctor will perform a physical examination, which will
include using a stethoscope to listen to your heart. They may also use an electrocardiogram
(EKG or ECG) machine to examine the electrical impulses of your heart. This
will help them determine whether your heart rhythm is abnormal and identify the
Other tools that can be used to diagnose an arrhythmia
Also known as a cardiac echo, this test uses sound waves to take pictures of
monitor. This monitor is worn for at least 24 hours while you go about your
normal activities. It allows your doctor to track changes in your heart’s
rhythm throughout the day.
test. For this test, your doctor will make you walk or jog on a treadmill
to see how exercise affects your heart.
Treating abnormal heart rhythms
The treatment for an arrhythmia depends on its cause. You
may need to make lifestyle changes, like increasing your activity level or
changing your diet (for example, limiting your caffeine intake). If you smoke,
your doctor will help you stop smoking. You might also require medication to
control your abnormal heartbeat, as well as any secondary symptoms.
For serious abnormalities that don’t go away with behavioral
changes or medication, your doctor can recommend:
- cardiac catheterization to diagnose a heart
- catheter ablation to destroy tissue that causes
- cardioversion by medication or an electrical
shock to the heart
- implantation of a pacemaker or cardioverter
- surgery to correct an abnormality
Outlook: What should I expect in the long term?
Although arrhythmia can be quite serious, many cases of
arrhythmia can be controlled with treatment. Along with treatment, your doctor
will want to monitor your condition with regular checkups.
Once your arrhythmia is under control, your doctor will
discuss ways to keep it from coming back. In general, healthy lifestyle choices
can go a long way toward helping you control your condition. Your doctor will
probably recommend improving your diet, exercising more, and trying to end
other dangerous behaviors, such as smoking.