When your heart beats too quickly, too slowly, or irregularly, you have arrhythmia. Some arrhythmias are harmless, while others can quickly become life-threatening.
Yogesh Paliwal, MD, and our team at Indus Cardiology specialize in top-level, personalized cardiovascular services at three locations in Pomona, Montclair, and West Covina, California. We’re always interested in providing health information that benefits our communities.
Read what our team says about how your heart pumps, the six most common arrhythmias, and what they might mean for your health.
Basics of heart rate and rhythm
The heart has two upper chambers (atria) and two lower chambers (ventricles). The muscular chamber walls contract and relax in a coordinated fashion to move blood through the heart.
Valves between the chambers open and close regularly, keeping blood flowing in the right direction as it travels through the heart and out into the body.
This pumping action is started by a small clump of specialized tissue (sinus node) in the right upper chamber. Acting like a natural pacemaker, the sinus node sends a signal that travels through the heart’s conduction system, regulating contractions in all four chambers.
This cyclical process produces the heartbeat heard through a stethoscope. Ideally, when you’re at rest, your heart beats at a regular rate and rhythm of 60-100 beats per minute.
What causes arrhythmias?
Exercise, illness, stress, and even an extra cup of coffee can cause your heart to beat more quickly or irregularly temporarily. However, persistent irregularities (arrhythmias) indicate a problem with the electrical signaling system in your heart.
Ongoing arrhythmias can affect heart function, leading to long-term damage to the muscle and increasing your risk of stroke, heart failure, and other complications. Some arrhythmias, such as ventricular fibrillation, are life-threatening emergencies that require immediate medical attention.
Depending on the type and underlying cause, arrhythmia treatment may include close monitoring, oral medications, or minor surgery such as pacemaker placement.
Breaking down six common arrhythmias
The six most common types of arrhythmia are:
1. Atrial fibrillation (AFib)
Atrial fibrillation is one of the most prevalent arrhythmias, affecting millions of people in the United States.
Caused by erratic signaling in the upper chambers (atria), AFib causes a fast and uncoordinated or chaotic heartbeat that reduces the heart’s ability to pump effectively, increasing your risk of stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications.
2. Atrial flutter
Like AFib, atrial flutter causes the atria to beat much faster than the ventricles. However, because the electrical signals circulate in an organized fashion, atrial flutter causes a quick yet steady heartbeat. If not treated, it can increase your risk of heart failure.
3. Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)
SVT refers to several arrhythmias that begin above the lower heart chambers. People with SVT experience a pounding heart rate of 100 beats or more per minute. The rapid rate may last for minutes or days and cause chest discomfort, fatigue, shortness of breath, or dizziness.
4. Ventricular tachycardia (VT)
Ventricular tachycardia is a rapid heart rate originating with abnormal electrical signals in the lower heart chambers (ventricles).
The rapid rate prevents the ventricles from filling and contracting efficiently. That interferes with your heart’s ability to pump enough blood to the body. VT can develop into a life-threatening emergency.
5. Ventricular fibrillation (VFib)
Ventricular fibrillation is a severe form of heart arrhythmia and a major cause of sudden cardiac arrest.
With VFib, the ventricles quiver uselessly instead of pumping blood, cutting off blood supply to the brain and other vital organs. VFib requires immediate intervention and may lead to sudden cardiac death if not treated within minutes.
Bradycardia refers to a slower-than-normal heart rate, typically less than 60 beats per minute for adults.
While it may not always signify a problem, especially in physically fit individuals, bradycardia can sometimes indicate issues with the heart's electrical system. Symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, or near-fainting spells.
Identifying the type and cause of your arrhythmia is crucial to your overall well-being. Call the office nearest you to schedule an evaluation at Indus Cardiology today.