What is an arrhythmia?
Arrhythmia is an irregular heartbeat. People affected perceive these disorders as skipped heartbeats or a racing heart.
What causes cardiac arrhythmias?
The heart muscle contracts at regular intervals. The impulse generator is the sinus node which is found in the upper part of the right atrium of the heart. Electrical impulses move from here to the muscle fibres of the heart via the cardiac conduction system. Arrhythmias can be caused by abnormal formation of the electrical impulse as well as by defective conduction within the conduction system.
What is the usual cardiac rhythm?
At rest, the heart of an adult beats between 60 and 80 times a minute. The pulse rate increases with excitement and physical activity. In contrast, during sleep and after recovery, it becomes slower. There are different types of arrhythmia in which this normal tempo is lost. The most common arrhythmias include extrasystoles, that is additional heartbeats or heartbeats outside the normal rhythm. They occur to a certain extent in everyone, which is also in healthy hearts. Treatment is only necessary if this rate is exceeded and symptoms occur.
What causes arrhythmias?
Arrhythmias can occur due to various reasons, including nervousness, anxiety, stress and excitement. Similarly, excessive consumption of caffeinated beverages such as cola, tea or coffee can result in skipped heartbeats. Arrhythmias can also be a side effect of a variety of medications. Arrhythmias may also frequently occur during the course of febrile infections. Cardiac muscle inflammation in particular can impair impulse conduction in the heart.
Other possible causes for arrhythmias are:
- Heart attack
- Heart valve disease
- High blood pressure
- Electrolyte imbalance (e.g. magnesium or potassium deficiency)
- Thyroid dysfunction
Which symptoms occur with arrhythmia?
A racing heart and skipped heartbeats are the most common symptoms that occur with arrhythmia. Some patients complain additionally of dizziness, light-headedness and fatigue but also of cardiac pain, stabbing pain in the heart and a tight chest. In severe cases, there may be fainting with a brief loss of consciousness or even seizures.
When should you go to the doctor?
Extrasystoles happen now and again to everyone and only rarely require treatment. Arrhythmias associated with symptoms such as a stabbing pain or chest pain, breathlessness or dizziness should always be investigated – preferably by a cardiologist. The doctor listens to your heart using a stethoscope and also measures your blood pressure and pulse. Electrocardiography (ECG) and echocardiography are important diagnostic methods for the determination of arrhythmias.
How is arrhythmia treated?
Severe arrhythmias require medical treatment in all cases. Even for mild to moderate arrhythmias, a doctor will usually prescribe antiarrhythmic drugs, but you can also do a lot yourself!
Self-help for arrhythmia:
- Review your lifestyle! Ensure a proper rhythm of work-rest with enough sleep and plenty of exercise in the fresh air.
- Avoid alcohol, nicotine and preferably also caffeinated beverages.
- Try to include conscious breaks in strenuous and stressful situations.
- Learn relaxation exercises, e.g., autogenic training.
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