The human heart beats with near perfect rhythm for more than seventy years in most cases. It may speed up or slow down to accommodate the body’s need for oxygen and nutrients, but the heart always beats in a regular, controlled pattern … when it is healthy. An arrhythmia means that the heart is beating irregularly. Sometimes an arrhythmia is benign and sometimes it can portend a serious problem.

Arrhythmias Have Many Causes

According to WebMD, an abnormal heartbeat can arise for a number of reasons. Sometimes arrhythmias occur after heart disease or a heart attack. Sometimes they occur due to electrolyte abnormalities or a viral infection. In rare cases, people are born with congenital differences in the structure of their hearts that makes them prone to arrhythmias.

The precise cause of an arrhythmia is sometimes less important than the type of arrhythmia itself, though the pattern of abnormal heartbeats is usually a good indicator of the underlying pathology. As it turns out, an irregular heartbeat can still have a pattern (it just isn’t the “normal” pattern). In fact, “irregular patterns” are useful diagnosing a number of specific conditions. While most arrhythmias can be diagnosed with a simple EKG, some require a trip to the EP lab for accurate diagnosis.

Atrial Fibrillation and Flutter

When the atria of the heart (the two smallest of the four chambers of heart) beat irregularly, they create two distinct patterns. The first is called flutter and the second is called fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is the most common abnormal heartbeat, especially in older individuals. Though not dangerous on their own, atrial arrhythmias can allow blood clots to form in the heart. These clots can dislodge and end up in the brain or lungs where they can cause a stroke or pulmonary embolism. Most irregular atrial rhythms are treated with blood thinners and no attempt is made to “fix” the arrhythmia unless it is causing discomfort.

Premature Ventricular Contractions (PVCs)

PVCs are the second most common form of arrhythmia and are often related to stress, caffeine, and nicotine. In some cases, PVCs are due to heart disease, electrolyte imbalances, or abnormal heart structure. Unlike atrial arrhythmias, PVCs can be dangerous in and of themselves because they affect the ventricles, which are the primary pumping chambers of the heart. PVCs can lead to fainting, stroke, heart attack, and even complete cardiac arrest. PVCs can be treated with medications, surgery, or implanted pacemakers.

Accessory Pathway Arrhythmias

┬áIn rare cases, individuals may have abnormalities in the structure of their heart that allow electrical signals to “leak.” Normally, electrical signals in the heart follow defined pathways to keep the heart beating in rhythm and thus keep blood moving in the right direction. An accessory pathway may allow those electrical signals to bypass normal pathways. The result is that the heart beats “wrong.” These types of arrhythmias can lead to fainting and other serious symptoms. They are usually addressed with medication and surgery and often require an expert to diagnose.

The List Goes On

The list of arrhythmias and their causes is far too massive to cover in a single article. In fact, experts in arrhythmias, called such as EP lab nurses, participate in eight years of training after medical school to make sense of all of these problems. What you need to know is that feelings of skipped beats, pounding in your chest, fainting, dizziness, chest pain, and chest tightness should be addressed by a physician immediately. While many arrhythmias are dangerous, all of them can be treated, so don’t put your symptoms off hoping they will resolve. A simple EKG is all you need to diagnosis an arrhythmia and start you down the road to recovery.