The Dangers of Missing a Beat

Michael Wu, MD

Your heart. It is a muscle that performs a lot of work every day. Its beating is what keeps a person alive. But what if that beating is not normal? It could be a heart rhythm disorder.

Irregular heartbeats are common, affecting about three million people each year. The heart has a kind of electrical system that causes it to beat. Essentially, any rhythm that does not follow the normal conduction system can be considered a heart rhythm disorder. An abnormal rhythm means the heart beats can be too slow, too fast, irregular, or “ectopic,” which are small changes in an otherwise normal rhythm that are usually harmless. It can occur in the atrium, the top chamber of the heart, or in the ventricle, also known as the bottom chamber.

Common rhythm disorders

Some of the common rhythm disorders are:

  • Atrial fibrillation: irregular heartbeats that follow no specific pattern
  • Supraventricular tachycardia: fast regular rhythm, usually more than 100 beats per minute while at rest 
  • Bradycardia: slow heart rate, usually less than 40 beats per minute
  • Ventricular tachycardia: fast heart beats arising from the ventricle, usually more than 100 beats per minute.
  • Premature beats: Extra beats that can arise from anywhere in the heart chambers, which can sometimes cause symptoms

Some rhythm disorders may be genetic, meaning they may be inherited from your parents. Others may happen spontaneously or as a result of another underlying medical condition.

Diagnosing a rhythm disorder

A doctor can sometimes detect a rhythm disorder through a physical exam. However, most of the time, it may be necessary to refer a patient for a type of test known as an electrocardiogram.

Other patients may need to use a Holter monitor, a battery-operated device that measures your heart’s rate and rhythm over a longer period. This provides your doctor with a clear picture of how your heart functions.

Implantable cardiac devices may be required for some patients. Sometimes, an electrophysiology study can be performed, and may be used in combination with medications to identify underlying rhythm disorders. You can learn more about our cardiac testing and diagnostics here.

The symptoms

Symptoms may vary from one person to another. Some patients may have no symptoms at all, while others may have symptoms of a rhythm disorder. Some of the more common symptoms are:

  • palpitation
  • lightheadedness
  • dizziness
  • syncope (fainting)
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue

Treating heart rhythm disorders

If the heart rhythm disorder is benign and the patient has no symptoms, routine monitoring is generally an effective approach. For some patients, medications can be used to treat some of the rhythm disorders if symptoms are present. Other patients may require additional treatments, which might include a procedure called catheter ablation. Some may also benefit from devices that regulate your heart rhythm for certain disorders.

Living with a rhythm disorder

There may not be a health impact for patients who have a benign rhythm disorder, which allows them to continue living a normal life.  Sometimes, however, rhythm disorders can cause symptoms or come with detrimental effects. Syncope, stroke, heart failure, and cardiac death are some of the more serious results of a rhythm disorder. For those patients, medication, devices, or certain procedures may improve their quality of life.

If you think you may have an irregular heartbeat, we can help. Learn more about the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute.