Frequently Asked Questions About Heart Rhythm Disorders

A heart rhythm disorder, also known as an arrhythmia, occurs when the heart doesn’t beat normally. It could be faster or slower than usual or it could be beating inconsistently. There are many different types of arrhythmias, with some occurring regularly and some occurring only periodically. 

Heart rhythm disorders come from an issue with the cardiac electrical impulses that control the heartbeat. They may be blocked, come from a different place than usual, or not fire correctly. This causes abnormal contractions in the heart, which leads to an abnormal heart rhythm.

What are the symptoms of an arrhythmia?

Possible symptoms include a racing or slow heartbeat, fluttering in the chest, pain, shortness of breath, skipped beats, sweatiness, fainting, or dizziness, especially if sudden or repeated over time. Not all arrhythmias show symptoms though—a routine examination can sometimes find one before the patient notices any symptoms.

How many kinds of heart rhythm disorders are there?

There are many different kinds of arrhythmias. They can be broken down by a few different factors:

  • Location. Where in the heart does it originate?
  • Severity. How often and how serious?
  • Cause. Is it solely an electrical problem or does it stem from damage to the heart muscle itself?
  • Speed. Is it going too fast? Too slow? Is it skipping beats?

In terms of general categories for arrhythmias, most of them fall into three groups:

  • Fibrillation, an irregular or quivering heartbeat
  • Tachycardia, a racing heartbeat
  • Bradycardia, a slow heartbeat (less than 60 beats per minute)

These are further classified by location. Generally speaking, an arrhythmia is either atrial or ventricular, which specifies whether it occurs in the top or bottom chambers of the heart.

There are a few other types of arrhythmias like heart block, premature ventricular contractions, Brugada syndrome, or Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome that don’t completely fit these categories. Palpitations are also a minor arrhythmia, but they often occur in completely healthy people and aren’t usually a cause for concern.

How are heart rhythm issues diagnosed?

Arrhythmias can be difficult to diagnose because they don’t always happen consistently and may not show up during testing. A range of tests can be used to help diagnose an arrhythmia depending on how frequently it occurs. 

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) is a quick, noninvasive test that maps the electrical patterns of the heart. There are variants of this test that are slightly more invasive if a more accurate picture is needed.
  • Echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart that maps the way your heart is shaped and the way it moves.
  • Electrophysiology test involves electrode catheters threaded to the heart to measure and provoke arrhythmias. It’s useful in finding arrhythmias that don’t occur very often.
  • Tilt-table test shows how blood pressure and heart rate respond to different orientations of the body using a measuring catheter threaded into an artery.
  • Treadmill tests are useful for finding exercise-related arrhythmias.
  • Holter monitor/event monitor. A Holter monitor or event monitor may be used for short- or long-term study of intermittent arrhythmias. The device is worn for a period of time to constantly monitor what’s happening with hearth rhythms. 

Are heart rhythm issues fatal?

Most heart rhythm issues are not fatal and can be controlled with treatments like a pacemaker, implanted defibrillator, medication, or lifestyle changes. However, some heart rhythm issues can be serious and potentially fatal if not treated and controlled. For example, atrial fibrillation is not dangerous on its own but it increases the risk of stroke, which can be serious. If you suspect you may have a heart rhythm issue, schedule an appointment with a specialist immediately to ensure proper treatment.

Can heart rhythm issues be cured?

Some can, but some can’t. Ablation procedures or other surgical procedures can completely cure some heart rhythm issues, while others require treatment ranging from lifestyle changes to daily medication.

What surgical options are available for arrhythmias?

Cardiac ablation is the main surgical treatment for arrhythmias. A special catheter is used to apply either heat or freezing techniques to destroy abnormal heart tissue that is causing certain arrhythmias. 

In some cases catheter ablation may not be possible, and a Cox Maze IV ablation may be used. This is an open-heart surgery that uses a maze-like pattern of incisions to create scar tissue that redirects abnormal electrical signals.

What medications are used to treat heart rhythm problems?

Depending on the type and severity of the arrhythmia, there are a few categories of prescription drugs that may be used to treat it. Blood thinners, calcium channel blockers, and beta blockers can all play a role in treating arrhythmias. These do not solve the underlying issue, but they can address the symptoms and help prevent abnormal rhythms from happening in the first place.

Concerned you may have a heart rhythm issue? Contact the Oklahoma Heart Hospital’s Heart Rhythm Institute today to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists.