Keeping the Beat
Each day your heart beats about 100,000 times. For most of us, our heart beat isn't something we think about, but for people with an arrhythmia, how their hearts are beating can be of great concern.
An arrhythmia is some type of change in the regular beating of the heart. It may be that the heart is beating too fast (tachycardia) or too slowly (bradycardia). Your heart may be beating in an uncoordinated manner (fibrillation). These problems all deal with the electrical impulses within the heart and may begin in any of the four chambers of the heart.
An arrhythmia may be part of how your heart normally functions. According to the National Institutes of Health, arrhythmias are fairly common in middle-aged adults. The older you get, the more likely you are to experience some type of arrhythmia.
In many cases, arrhythmias don't require treatment. For those whose arrhythmias are determined to be abnormal and clinically significant, then your doctor will probably prescribe some type of treatment. In order to require treatment, the arrhythmia must either cause symptoms or put you at risk for more serious arrhythmias or complications.
Doctors can use a number of methods to diagnose an arrhythmia. Sometimes an electrocardiogram (EKG) can record the arrhythmia. You may need to wear a small, portable EKG recorder called a Holter monitor that records your heart's electrical activity for 24 hours.
Doctors also can use treadmill tests, tilt table studies and echocardiograms. Some patients may need an electrophysiology study that uses long, thin tubes (catheters) that are placed into the large blood vessels of the arms, legs or both. From there, doctors guide the tips of the catheters into the heart where they record electrical signals.
An electrophysiology study may give your doctor more precise information about your heart than other diagnostic methods. During the study, doctors stimulate your heart to beat rapidly or irregularly and watch how your heart responds.
Treatment for arrhythmia depends on the type and severity. For some people, medications may help. Others may need a pacemaker or an implantable defibrillator.
The implantable defibrillator is surgically placed in your chest where it monitors the heart's rhythm. If a serious arrhythmia occurs, the defibrillator gives an electrical shock that puts the heart back into normal beating. This device is similar to the machine used in emergency rooms to externally shock the heart.
Pacemakers are surgically implanted just under the skin with a lead wire that goes from the device to the right side of the heart. These small devices work as a type of backup for the heart. If your heart's natural pacemaker (the sinus node) isn't working properly, then the artificial one takes over to keep the heart beating.