Understanding irregular heart rhythms

Your heart is amazing. It's a strong, muscular pump a little larger than your fist that moves blood continuously through your circulatory system. Each day, the average heart beats about 100,000 times and pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood through your body.

If you notice your heart is fluttering, beating too fast or too slow or just not beating the way it usually does, you might have a heart rhythm problem known as an arrhythmia. In this article, Thomas Mattioni, MD, an electrophysiologist at HonorHealth Heart Care - Cardiac Arrhythmia, explains what you need to know about irregular heart rhythms.

Types of arrhythmias

There are many types of arrhythmias that can occur with varying degrees of symptoms. If you’re having symptoms that are interfering with daily living — causing fatigue, fainting or chest pain — you should be evaluated by a physician to diagnose if an arrhythmia is the cause.

Atrial fibrillation (Afib) is the most common type of arrhythmia; it’s a fast, irregular heartbeat in which electrical signals fire in a very fast or uncontrolled fashion, causing the atrial chambers of the heart to twitch, quiver or contract. Blood can pool in the heart causing blood clots, and if a blood clot travels to the brain, stroke can occur.

“When your heart doesn't beat properly, it can't pump blood effectively,” says Dr. Mattioni. “When that happens, your lungs, brain and all your other organs can't work as they should. Without sufficient blood flow, organ damage begins to happen, and the organ just shuts down entirely.”

Signs of an arrhythmia

When it's very brief, an arrhythmia can have almost no symptoms. When they are severe or last long enough to affect how well your heart works, your heart may not be able to pump enough blood through your circulatory system.

Expected changes in heart rate occur during physical activity, stress, excitement and sleep. The prevalence of atrial and ventricular arrhythmias tends to increase with age, even when there's no clear sign of heart disease.

“Heart disease that you may have as an after-effect from a muscle-damaging heart attack or other event is the most important factor making you prone to arrhythmias,” says Dr. Mattioni. “If you have heart disease, your cardiologist is likely monitoring your heart rhythm with regular EKGs. But arrhythmias that happen infrequently may not be detected and not all arrhythmias cause clear-cut symptoms, so be sure to tell your doctor about any unusual symptoms such as fainting, difficulty breathing, fatigue or a thumping feeling in your chest.”

An HonorHealth patient getting help for her irregular heat rhythm

How are arrhythmias treated?

Before treatment, your doctor will need to know where in your heart the arrhythmia starts and if it's abnormal. An EKG or ECG, a non-invasive test that determines your heart rate and rhythm, are often used to diagnose them.

Additional tests include:

  • A Holter monitor – a portable device that you wear nonstop for 24 to 48 hours to record your heart's electrical activity.
  • An exercise stress test – measures heart activity as you walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike.
  • A tilt table test – your blood pressure and heart rate are measured as you lie on a table that's slowly tilted up.
  • Electrophysiological studies – map your heart's electrical system.

Treatments for arrhythmias vary depending on the severity and may include:

Care that's made with you in mind

If you need heart care, we've got you covered. Whether you live in the metro Phoenix area or you're looking to travel to HonorHealth from another part of the state or country, you'll receive in-depth care designed with your convenience in mind.

Request an appointment with a specialist today: 623-580-5800.

Find a cardiologist