Heart rhythm problems, or arrhythmia’s, occur when the electrical impulses that coordinate your heartbeat don’t work properly, causing your heart to beat too fast, too slow or irregularly. A heartbeat that is too fast is called a tachycardia and one that is too slow is called a bradycardia.
Atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib) is an arrhythmia with an irregular and often rapid heartbeat that causes decreased blood flow to the body. During AF, the atria (the heart’s two upper chambers) beat out of sync with the ventricles (the heart’s two lower chambers). AF can be occasional, with symptoms that come and go from minutes to hours, or chronic, with symptoms that will not resolve without treatment.
Though most arrhythmia’s are harmless, some can be life-threatening. During an arrhythmia, the heart may not pump enough blood through the body, which can cause damage to the heart, brain and other organs. The cause of arrhythmia’s are often unknown, although factors such as smoking, alcohol use, drug use, over-the counter medication or too much caffeine or nicotine are known to provoke them.
People with AF can lead normal and active lives. Treatments are available that can help control symptoms and prevent complications, including medications, medical procedures and positive lifestyle changes.
Although AF is not usually immediately life-threatening, it is a significant medical issue that requires prompt medical attention, evaluation and diagnostic workup. It is important to recognize the symptoms and risk factors.
AF SYMPTOMS: Some people with AF will not experience symptoms and will only learn they have it from their doctor. Others may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Palpitations (feelings that your heart is skipping a beat, fluttering or beating too hard or fast)
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness or problems exercising
- Dizziness or fainting
- Chest pain–this requires immediate medical attention
AF RISK FACTORS: If you have AF, your risk of stroke increases up to five times. AF can also lead to heart failure. Other risk factors include:
- Heart attack, heart failure or cardiomyopathy
- Heart tissue that is too thick, stiff or hasn’t formed normally
- Leaking or narrowed heart valves
- Congenital heart defects
- High blood pressure
- Damage to the heart muscles
- Sleep apnea
- Overactive or underactive thyroid glands
Treatment plans for arrhythmia can include:
- Using ablation (radio wave energy) to destroy specific areas of the heart that are causing the rhythm abnormality
- Implanting a pacemaker, for those hearts that are beating too slowly
- Implanting a defibrillator, for those hearts that are beating too rapidly
When to call your doctor
If you’re on a beta blocker to decrease your heart rate (and lower blood pressure) or to control another common abnormal rhythm (arrhythmia), your doctor may ask you to monitor and log your heart rate. Keeping tabs on your heart rate can help your doctor determine whether to change the dosage or switch to a different medication. If your pulse is very low, or if you have frequent episodes of unexplained fast heart rates, especially if they cause you to feel weak or dizzy or faint, tell your doctor, who can decide if it’s an emergency. To schedule an appointment, call 888-452-IRMC.