“Is an irregular heartbeat common?” “How will I know when to visit a doctor about my irregular heartbeat?” These are questions you may have if you are experiencing symptoms of an irregular heart rhythm. There could be a number of reasons why your heart beats at an irregular pace. Fortunately, treatments and methods of monitoring an irregular heartbeat are available due to medical technology and practices improving greatly over time. Take a look into how your heart beats, current causes for an irregular heartbeat, and possible treatments.

All about the heartbeat

The average amount a heart should beat is about 60 – 100 times per minute. This varies depending on whether an individual is at rest or taking part in some form of activity such as running or cycling. It is best to have a steady heartbeat. This ensures that your body is pumping the blood that the rest of your body needs to stay healthy. With each heartbeat, the blood that gets pushed through helps your brain, major and minor organs, and so many more necessary functions.

The heartbeat is controlled by electrical impulses conducted by the cardiac conduction system, a group of cells within the heart. Since the heart is a muscle, it contracts with each electrical signal or beat. A heartbeat begins in the right portion of the heart and moves through the walls of the heart chambers and ventricles.

What is an arrhythmia?

An abnormal heart rhythm is also called an arrhythmia. There are several different types of arrhythmias including fibrillation, tachycardia, and bradycardia.

Atrial fibrillation is the irregular, rapid heart rate during which the heart’s two upper chambers (the atria) beat chaotically and irregularly — out of coordination with the two lower chambers (the ventricles) of the heart. Tachycardia is when the heartbeat becomes too rapid, over 100 beats per minute. Bradycardia is when the heartbeat becomes too slow, below 60 beats per minute.

 Common causes of arrhythmia include:

  • A heart attack

  • Scar tissue of the heart from a prior heart attack

  • Changes to your heart’s structure, such as from cardiomyopathy

  • Blocked arteries in your heart (coronary artery disease)

  • High blood pressure

  • Overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)

  • Underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism)

  • Smoking

  • Drinking too much alcohol

  • Too much caffeine

  • Drug abuse

  • Stress

  • Certain medications and supplements, including over-the-counter cold and allergy drugs and nutritional supplements

  • Diabetes

  • Sleep apnea

  • Genetics


Symptoms of arrhythmia

Individuals who have an irregular heartbeat may experience symptoms such as chest pain, fatigue, fainting, dizziness or nausea, profuse sweating, and shortness of breath. These symptoms should not go ignored and should always be addressed as soon as possible to your cardiologist or primary care physician. Neglecting heart abnormalities can be life threatening and cause permanent damage such as a stroke, heart attack, heart failure or death.

Diagnosis & Treatments

It is very important to live a heart-healthy lifestyle, reduce stress, follow a balanced diet and exercise regularly to reduce your risk of heart disease. In addition, avoidance of smoking, alcohol, caffeine and over the counter medications with stimulants prevent arrhythmia.

 There are heart-monitoring tests that help diagnose arrhythmias. These include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG). 

  • Holter monitor. This portable ECG device can be worn for a day or more to continuously record your heart’s rhythm.

  • Event monitor. This portable ECG device is hooked up to your body and by pressing a button when you have symptoms, you can record your heart rhythm at the time of your symptoms for the doctor review.

  • Implantable loop recorder. This device is implanted under the skin in the chest area and records heart rhythm

 Medications like beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and anticoagulants (blood thinners) can all be used to help treat an individual with arrhythmia. Beta blockers lower blood pressure and decrease the heart rate by blocking adrenaline effects. Calcium channel blockers disrupt the movement of calcium from going into the heart and blood vessel tissue. Blood thinners help prevent stroke in patients with arrhythmia such as atrial fibrillation. Treatment for heart arrhythmias may involve use of an implantable device (Pacemaker, Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator) or doing a procedure called Catheter Ablation.

 When it comes to heart health, there is so much more than needs to be done other than simply eating right and exercising regularly. Part of keeping up with one’s health involves seeing a physician on a regular basis to track progress. For those who have an irregular heartbeat, this step is extremely important. It takes a network of monitoring, physician care, and lifestyle choices to give your heart the best chance at serving your body to its full potential.