Irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, is a heart condition that affects a person’s heart rhythm. Around 5% of the American population has arrhythmia. There are several different types of arrhythmias, the most common being atrial fibrillation. An irregular heartbeat can affect anyone, at any age and health status. In a recent study, it has been suggested that one in four Americans develop an arrhythmia after the age of 40.
While arrhythmias can be harmless, there are several that can be life-threatening. It is important to know the signs and symptoms of an irregular heartbeat so that proper diagnosis and possible treatment can occur.
What is an Irregular Heartbeat?
An arrhythmia is an unusual heartbeat that occurs when the heart is out of rhythm. While some people who have arrhythmias do not feel it, others can feel their irregular heartbeat. It can feel like the heart skipped a beat, added a beat, or is “fluttering.” Arrhythmias can also make the heart feel like it is beating too fast or beating too slow.
An irregular heartbeat can be both harmless and dangerous, depending on the type of arrhythmia the person has.
Signs and Symptoms of Irregular Heartbeat
At times, an irregular heartbeat can be silent, meaning the person may never feel it. During an exam, a doctor may hear it and then go through the process of properly diagnosing the patient.
People with arrhythmias can sometimes feel them. People of all ages and lifestyles can have or develop an irregular heartbeat. Some causes of arrhythmias can be:
- Heart disease
- Problems with the electrical signals in the heart
- Alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, or exercise
- Certain medications
- The wrong balance of electrolytes
- Strong emotions, stress, or surprise
Signs and symptoms to look out for that could be an indication of irregular heartbeat include:
- Pounding in the chest
- Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or tightness
- Weakness or fatigue
- Blurry vision
While anyone can develop an arrhythmia, certain people may have a higher chance of developing one. Some factors that can influence this include:
- Medical Condition
If a person believes they may be experiencing an irregular heartbeat, it is important to contact a doctor to get the correct diagnosis. While arrhythmias can be harmless, some can be incredibly dangerous, and it is important that the patient receive the correct treatment.
Ways to Diagnose an Irregular Heartbeat
Doctors use a variety of different ways to diagnose a patient with arrhythmia. Some of these ways include:
- EKG – An EKG or Electrocardiogram records the heart’s electrical activity. The patient has small electrode patches placed on their chest, arms, and legs for a quick and painless test at the doctor’s office. The doctor then can read the results and determine what the next course of action will be.
- Holter Monitor – Sometimes, a doctor needs more records on the heart’s activity than what an EKG at a doctor’s office can give. A Holter monitor, or ambulatory electrocardiogram, allows just that. It is a small and portable EKG that the patient can wear for 1 day and for up to 2 weeks, depending on the records needed by the doctor. The doctor then evaluates the results and determines what is needed next for the patient’s treatment.
- Event Monitor- If the patient’s symptoms do not happen regularly, the doctor may use an event monitor. Like an EKG, it records the person’s symptoms, but only when the monitor is activated by the patient. When the patient pushes a button as they feel symptoms, it will record their heart’s electric activity for a few minutes. The doctor then reads the results and determines what the next steps will be.
Some other ways doctors diagnose arrhythmia are by using an implantable loop recorder, a stress test, an echocardiogram, cardiac catheterization, an electrophysiology study, or a Table Test.
If a patient believes they may be struggling with an irregular heartbeat, it is important to speak with a doctor to determine which diagnostic test is right for them.
Types of Arrhythmia
There are several different types of irregular heartbeats. Doctors categorize arrhythmias based on where they occur in the heart. The heart is made up of different chambers; two upper chambers and two lower chambers. If an irregular heartbeat occurs in the upper chambers, they are called supraventricular arrhythmias. If they happen in the lower chambers, they are ventricular arrhythmias.
Doctors also group arrhythmias based on the patient’s resting heart rate. Bradycardia is 60 heartbeats per minute or less, and tachycardia is more than 100 beats per minute.
Supraventricular, upper chamber, arrhythmias include:
- Premature atrial contractions are early extra beats that are harmless and normally do not need treatment
- Atrial fibrillation – Where the atrial chambers quiver, preventing the normal flow of blood. Clots are more likely to form in this type of arrhythmia.
- Atrial flutter is more organized and regular than atrial fibrillation. This occurs most often when people have heart disease and in the first week after heart surgery. It sometimes changes into atrial fibrillation
- Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia is a rapid heart rate, usually with a regular rhythm. It begins and ends suddenly.
- Accessory pathway tachycardia is a rapid heart rate due to extra pathways between the upper and lower chambers of the heart.
- AV nodal reentrant tachycardia is caused by an extra pathway through a part of the heart called the AV node. This can cause heart palpitations, fainting, or heart failure.
Ventricular, lower chambers, arrhythmias include:
- Premature ventricular contractions are among the most common arrhythmias. They are the “skipped heartbeat” that many people can feel at times.
- Ventricular tachycardia is a rapid heart rhythm. Because the heart is beating too fast, it cannot fill with enough blood. This is a serious arrhythmia.
- Ventricular fibrillation occurs when the lower chambers quiver and cannot contract or pump blood to the rest of the body. This is a medical emergency that must be treated with CPR and defibrillation.
Bradyarrhythmia, a slow rhythm due to disease in a patient’s heart’s electrical system or medication, can also occur. There are several kinds of bradyarrhythmias:
- Sinus bradycardia
- Sinus pause
- Sick sinus syndrome
- Tachy-Brady syndrome
- Heart block
Arrhythmias are complex, so it is important to speak with a doctor to determine exactly which kind of arrhythmia a person may have.
What are the Most Common Treatments for Irregular Heartbeat?
There are a variety of different treatments for irregular heartbeats. These treatments range from medications to procedures to help keep the heart’s electrical impulses only on certain pathways.
Medication for Arrhythmias
There are several medications that can treat arrhythmias. Some of these medications include:
- Calcium-channel blockers
The Rx Advocates Can Help Reduce the Cost of Medications for Irregular Heartbeat
Here at The Rx Advocates, we understand that even with the best health insurance, monthly medications can quickly become expensive. We provide a service to help people save money on their monthly prescriptions. No one should ever have to go without the medication they need daily. We want people to live their lives with the comfort of knowing that they are getting the correct prescription and saving money at the same time.
Many people do not realize that they may qualify for programs to save on medication for an irregular heartbeat. Contact us today to see if you or a family member qualifies for our prescription advocacy program.
- Scripps.org: Top 10 Things You Should Know About Heart Rhythm. March 2015. Available at https://www.scripps.org/sparkle-assets/documents/heart_rhythm_facts.pdf.
- Heart.org: About Arrhythmia. September 2016. Available at https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/arrhythmia/about-arrhythmia.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Heart Attack. January 2021. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/index.htm.
- MedLine Plus: Arrhythmia. July 2021. Available at https://medlineplus.gov/arrhythmia.html.
- Mayo Clinic: Heart Arrhythmia. August 2020. Available at https://medlineplus.gov/arrhythmia.html.
- The Cleveland Clinic: Arrhythmia. June 2018. Available at https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16749-arrhythmia.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Atrial Fibrillation. September 2020. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/atrial_fibrillation.htm.