What Causes an Irregular Heartbeat?

An arrhythmia occurs when the heart is beating too quickly, too slowly, or in an irregular pattern. What causes this condition and how can it be treated?

When the electrical impulses that control blood flow in the heart misfire, you may experience an irregular heartbeat. Known as a heart arrhythmia, this condition causes your heart to beat too quickly, too slowly, or otherwise erratically.

A normal resting heart beats between 60 and 100 times per minute. A heart rate faster than 100 beats per minute is classified as tachycardia, or a fast heart rate. A heart rate slower than 60 beats is called bradycardia. A slower than normal heart rate may not be a reason for concern since many athletes have slow heart rates due to being in peak physical condition. Medication to control high blood pressure may also cause bradycardia.

The most common type of heart arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, or AFib. If you have AFib, the upper chambers of the heart (the atrias) don’t pump blood properly to the lower chambers of the heart (the ventricles). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 2.7 million to 6.1 million people in the U.S. suffer from AFib. Knowing the signs of an irregular heartbeat and discussing any symptoms with a doctor can help ensure that your heart remains healthy.

Causes of an Irregular Heartbeat

Besides an erratic pulse or racing heart palpitations, common symptoms of a heart arrhythmia include shortness of breath, chest pain, sweating, pale skin, or feeling dizzy and light-headed. Heart arrhythmias put you at risk of a stroke or heart disease, so any unusual heartbeat should be checked by a doctor.

To diagnose an arrhythmia, an echocardiogram (EKG) measures electrical activity in your heart. Or, you can wear a Holter monitor which records your heart rate throughout the day. Lastly, a stress test to check how your heart performs when exercising may be done. This test takes place on a treadmill as you walk or jog.

Heart arrhythmias can be attributed to a number of factors, such as blocked arteries, high blood pressure, diabetes, congenital heart defects, and sleep apnea. Lifestyle also impacts our heart health. Smoking, caffeine, excessive drinking, and stress have all been linked to an irregular heartbeat. An arrhythmia could even be a sign of a heart attack — and if that’s the case, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Arrhythmias can also be brought on by certain prescription drugs and cold medications. In addition, the electrolyte levels in your blood — substances such as potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium that control the electrical activity in your heart — may be too high or too low, which leads to an irregular heartbeat. People with an underactive or overactive thyroid have a greater chance of suffering heart arrhythmias, as well.

Treatment for Arrhythmia

If your symptoms are diminishing your quality of life or your doctor believes you may be at risk for complications due to an arrhythmia, you’ll begin a treatment program. This may include medication to control your heart rate or an implantable device like a pacemaker. Inserted under the skin near the collarbone, the pacemaker jolts the heart to a normal heart rate when it detects an abnormal rhythm.

A minor surgical procedure — a catheter ablation — has been used to treat arrhythmias. This procedure pulses heat, radiofrequency waves, or cold through a thin catheter into the heart tissue to short-circuit the area where the irregular heartbeat originates. Heart surgery is recommended only when other methods have failed to regulate your heart rate.

Along with medical treatment, your doctor may advise lifestyle changes. Quitting smoking, following an exercise routine, eating a heart-healthy diet, and practicing stress reduction will maintain your heart health and prevent cardiovascular problems in the future.

Let Us Care for Your Heart

If you notice your heart rate is irregular or experience other cardiac symptoms, the physicians and staff at Premier Heart & Vein Care employ a variety of diagnostic tools to determine what may be causing your arrhythmia. We’ll then prescribe a treatment program to maintain your cardiovascular fitness. Your heart health is important to us — find how our compassionate, knowledgeable staff can help by making an appointment today.


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