Understanding Arrhythmias

Understanding Arrhythmias

It’s common knowledge that our heartbeat has a rhythm, but what happens when that rhythm is irregular?

An irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, is when your heart beats too fast, too slow or flutters/fibrillates. This week is World Heart Rhythm Week, a week dedicated to awareness around the common yet potentially serious condition of arrhythmias.

When we look at the heart, it can be helpful to understand it in terms of the plumbing and the electrics. The plumbing relates to the arteries and veins of your heart, whereas the electrics concern your heart’s beat and rhythm. And this is where an arrhythmia comes in to play.

An abnormal heart rhythm falls into two categories – tachycardic/fast (greater than 100 beats per minute) and bradycardic/slow (less than 60 beats per minute). It is normal to have a tachycardiac heart rhythm when you are exercising; however, this shouldn’t happen at rest. And if your heart is bradycardic, you may not have enough blood being pumped and supplied to your body.

Types of Arrhythmia Conditions

There are many different heart diseases which are arrhythmias, with Atrial Fibrillation being one of the most well-known. Other conditions include: Atrial Flutter, Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT), Long QT Syndrome, Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome, Brugada Syndrome and Heart Block.

Arrhythmias can be caused by a variety of different conditions including coronary artery disease, surgery on your heart, certain medications, thyroid disorders, certain substances (including nicotine, alcohol, cocaine and caffeine), imbalances in your electrolytes (such as low potassium), as well as your heart having an electrical problem in general.

Symptoms can include:

  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Palpitations (the sensation of feeling your heartbeat)
  • Fluttering feeling in your chest
  • Breathlessness
  • Blackouts
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Slow or racing heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Weakness and confusion

If you have experienced any of the above, it is best to visit your GP for a review; however, you can also check for a potential arrhythmia at home by simply by taking your pulse.

The best way to do this is to:

  1. Hold your left or right arm palm-side facing upwards with a slightly bent elbow.
  2. Place three fingers (usually index, middle, and pointer finger) on the outside of your wrist, almost directly under your thumb. You may need to feel around until you find your pulse.
  3. If your pulse feels regular, count the number of beats in 30 seconds, then double that. If your pulse feels like it might be irregular, count for a full 60 seconds.

The good news is, if you are found to have an arrhythmia, you may not require treatment. Many women with an arrhythmia go on to lead normal, healthy lives without any change or intervention. However, if your arrhythmia puts you at risk of other health conditions, you may need treatment including:

  • Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol, eating a healthier diet and exercise
  • Medications to control the rate or rhythm of your heart
  • Procedures such as an ablation (manipulating the faulty heart muscle causing the arrhythmia), a Pacemaker insertion (an electrical device that controls the heart rate), a cardioversion (a shock to the heart returning it to normal) or an ICD insertion (an electrical device which sends a shock to the heart when it is in dangerous rhythm).

So, this World Heart Rhythm Week, why not take just one minute to check your pulse. If it is irregular or greater than 120 beats per minute, visit your GP to discuss. And if all feels fine, tremendous but remember to listen to your body and take that ‘pulse check’ every few months.