Has your heart ever skipped a beat? At some time or another, most people have felt their heart race or skip a beat. These occasional changes can be brought on by strong emotions or by other triggers. But when does a skipped heartbeat become troublesome? And what exactly does it mean to have an arrhythmia? We explore the types, cases, and risk factors of arrhythmia in the intro that follows.
What is an arrhythmia?
An arrhythmia is any disorder of your heart rate or rhythm. An arrhythmia occurs when then heart beats too quickly, too slowly or with an irregular pattern. When the heart beats too fast, it's called tachycardia. When it beats too slow, it's called bradycardia. An arrhythmia can also mean that your heart beats irregularly (skips a beat or has an extra beat).
In most people, arrhythmias are minor and are not dangerous. A small number of people, however, have arrhythmias that are dangerous and require treatment. Arrhythmias are also more serious if you have other heart problems. In general, arrhythmias that start in the lower chambers of the heart (called the ventricles) are more serious than those that start in the upper chambers (called the atria).
Types of arrhythmias
Bradyarrhythmias - Bradyarrhythmias are characterized by a slower than normal heart rate. If the heart rate is too slow, not enough blood reaches the brain. This can cause you to lose consciousness.
Premature (extra) beats - Premature beats are the most common type of arrhythmia and are harmless most of the time. In most cases, premature beats occur naturally and not due to any heart disease but are caused by stress, too much exercise, or too much caffeine or nicotine. Heart diseases can also cause premature beats.
Supraventricular arrhythmias - Supraventricular arrhythmias are tachycardias (fast heart rates) that start in the atria or the atrioventricular (AV) node, which is a group of cells located between the atria and the ventricles.
Atrial fibrillation (AF) - AF is the most common type of serious arrhythmia and is characterized by a very fast and irregular contraction of the atria.
Atrial flutter - Atrial flutter is similar to AF, but instead of the electrical signals spreading through the atria in a fast and irregular rhythm, they travel in a fast and regular rhythm.
Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT) - PSVT is a very fast heart rate that begins and ends suddenly and is caused by electrical connection problems between the atria and the ventricles
Ventricular arrhythmias - These arrhythmias start in the ventricles. They can be very dangerous and usually need medical attention right away. Ventricular arrhythmias include ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation (v-fib). Coronary heart disease, heart attack, weakened heart muscle, and other problems can cause ventricular arrhythmias.
What causes an irregular heart rhythm? And are certain people more at risk of developing an arrhythmia than others? Learn more about causes and risk factors of heart arryhthmia here.