Heart rhythm disorders, also known as arrhythmia or dysrhythmia, is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slowly, or with an irregular rhythm. When a heart beats too fast, the condition is called tachycardia. When a heart beats too slowly, the condition is called bradycardia.
Arrhythmia is caused by changes in heart tissue and activity or in the electrical signals that control your heartbeat. These changes can be caused by damage from disease, injury, or genetics. Often there are no symptoms, but some people feel an irregular heartbeat. You may feel faint or dizzy or have difficulty breathing.
The most common test used to diagnose an arrhythmia is an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). Your doctor will run other tests as needed. She or he may recommend medicines, placement of a device that can correct an irregular heartbeat, or surgery to repair nerves that are overstimulating the heart. If arrhythmia is left untreated, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body. This can damage the heart, the brain, or other organs.
An arrhythmia may not cause any obvious signs or symptoms. You may notice something that occurs only occasionally, or your symptoms may become more frequent over time. Keep track of when and how often arrhythmia occurs, what you feel, and whether these things change over time. They are all important clues your doctor can use. If left untreated, arrhythmia can lead to life-threatening complications such as stroke, heart failure, or sudden cardiac arrest.
You may be able to feel a slow or irregular heartbeat or notice pauses between heartbeats. If you have palpitations, you may feel like your heart skipped a beat or may notice it pounding or racing. These are all symptoms of arrhythmia.
More serious signs and symptoms may include:
- Blurred vision
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Fainting or nearly fainting
- Foggy thinking
- Weakness, dizziness, and light-headedness
To diagnose arrhythmia, your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, your medical history, and any signs of arrhythmia in your family. Your doctor may also do an EKG and a physical exam as part of your diagnosis. Additional tests may be necessary to rule out another cause or to help your doctor decide on treatment.
If you have been diagnosed and treated for arrhythmia, make sure to follow your treatment plan. Your ongoing care may focus on reducing the chance that you will have another episode or a complication. Keep your regular appointments with your doctor. Ask about heart-healthy lifestyle changes that you can make to keep your arrhythmia from happening again or getting worse.