Abnormal Heartbeat (Arrhythmias)
An abnormal heartbeat can cause heart palpitations, heart pounding, chest discomfort and numerous other symptoms.
The term arrhythmia is used to describe an abnormal heartbeat—one that is too fast, too slow or irregular. This condition is also sometimes referred to as dysrhythmia. Although pulse rates will vary from one person to another, a normal resting heart rate is generally between 60 and 100 beats per minute, with a regular rhythm.
There are numerous different types of heart arrhythmias, including:
- Tachycardia – a fast heart rate, where the heart beats more than 100 times per minute
- Bradycardia – a slow heart rate, where the heart beats less than 60 times per minute
- Supraventricular arrhythmia – an arrhythmia that begins in the atria
- Ventricular arrhythmia – an arrhythmia that begins in the ventricles
There are also various subtypes of arrhythmias. For example, premature atrial contractions (PACs) and paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT) are both types of supraventricular arrhythmias, meaning that they both originate in the atria—PACs are characterized by extra early heartbeats, while PSVT is identified by a rapid but regular heart rhythm that begins and ends suddenly.
Causes of an Abnormal Heartbeat
The heart contains an electrical system that regulates how fast it beats. When an issue develops within that system, it can lead to a heart rhythm disorder. It’s fairly common for arrhythmias to occur in normal, otherwise healthy hearts as a result of:
- Consuming alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or certain herbs
- Taking certain medications or diet pills
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Using illegal drugs such as cocaine
- Inhaling aerosols
- Being stressed
- Experiencing shock or fright
There are several other conditions that can also lead to arrhythmias, include:
- Coronary artery disease
- Cardiac bypass surgery
- Congenital heart disease
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
- Thyroid disease
- Valvular heart disease
However, if an abnormal heartbeat is occurring repeatedly or as the result of an underlying heart condition—such as cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, an electrolyte imbalance, hypertension (high blood pressure) or a valve disorder—it’s important to seek advice from a trained medical provider.
Symptoms of an Abnormal Heartbeat
Abnormal heartbeats can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Heart palpitations
- A feeling of pounding within the chest
- Chest discomfort
- Shortness of breath
Many arrhythmias are silent and don’t cause any noticeable symptoms. In more severe cases, abnormal heartbeats can lead to heart failure and cardiac arrest.
When to see a Physician
If you feel like your heart is beating too fast or too slowly, or it's skipping a beat, pause between beats, make an appoint to see a physician. Seek immediate medical help if you have shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting or near fainting, and chest pain or discomfort.
Diagnosing an Abnormal Heartbeat
Physicians often diagnose arrhythmias by taking a patient’s pulse, listening to his or her heart and ordering diagnostic tests such as:
- Cardiac catheterization
- Electrocardiograms (EKGs)
- Electrophysiology studies (EPS)
- Tilt table test
Treatment for an Abnormal Heartbeat
Treating an underlying condition that has caused a heart rhythm disorder often resolves the arrhythmia as well. However, if the abnormal heartbeat persists, it can likely be treated with:
- Implantation of electrical devices
- Lifestyle changes
Treatment for an abnormal heartbeat will depend on the arrhythmia’s type and severity. The experienced multidisciplinary team at Tampa General Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Institute effectively diagnoses and treats arrhythmias.