Heart arrhythmia (also known as arrhythmia, dysrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat) is a group of conditions in which the heartbeat is irregular, too fast, or too slow. A heart rate that is too fast – above 100 beats per minute in adults – is called tachycardia and a heart rate that is too slow – below 60 beats per minute – is called bradycardia. Many types of arrhythmia have no symptoms. When symptoms are present these may include palpitations or feeling a pause between heartbeats. In more serious cases there may be lightheadedness, passing out, shortness of breath, or chest pain. While most types of arrhythmia are not serious, some predispose a person to complications such as stroke or heart failure. Others may result in cardiac arrest.
There are four main types of arrhythmia: extra beats, supraventricular tachycardias, ventricular arrhythmias, and bradyarrhythmias. Extra beats include premature atrial contractions, premature ventricular contractions, and premature junctional contractions. Supraventricular tachycardias include atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter, and paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia. Ventricular arrhythmias include ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia. Arrhythmias are due to problems with the electrical conduction system of the heart. Arrhythmias may occur in children; however, the normal range for the heart rate is different and depends on age. A number of tests can help with diagnosis including an electrocardiogram (ECG) and Holter monitor.
Most arrhythmias can be effectively treated. Treatments may include medications, medical procedures such as inserting a pacemaker, and surgery. Medications for a fast heart rate may include beta blockers or agents that attempt to restore a normal heart rhythm such as procainamide. This latter group may have more significant side effects especially if taken for a long period of time. Pacemakers are often used for slow heart rates. Those with an irregular heartbeat are often treated with blood thinners to reduce the risk of complications. Those who have severe symptoms from an arrhythmia may receive urgent treatment with a controlled electric shock in the form of cardioversion or defibrillation.
Arrhythmia affects millions of people. In Europe and North America, as of 2014, atrial fibrillation affects about 2% to 3% of the population. Atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter resulted in 112,000 deaths in 2013, up from 29,000 in 1990. Sudden cardiac death is the cause of about half of deaths due to cardiovascular disease or about 15% of all deaths globally. About 80% of sudden cardiac death is the result of ventricular arrhythmias. Arrhythmias may occur at any age but are more common among older people.
Signs and symptoms
The term cardiac arrhythmia covers a very large number of very different conditions.
The most common symptom of an arrhythmia is an awareness of an abnormal heartbeat, called palpitations. These may be infrequent, frequent, or continuous. Some of these arrhythmias are harmless (though distracting for patients) but some of them predispose to adverse outcomes.
Some arrhythmias do not cause symptoms, and are not associated with increased mortality. However, some asymptomatic arrhythmias are associated with adverse events. Examples include a higher risk of blood clotting within the heart and a higher risk of insufficient blood being transported to the heart because of weak heartbeat. Other increased risks are of embolisation and stroke, heart failure and sudden cardiac death.
If an arrhythmia results in a heartbeat that is too fast, too slow or too weak to supply the body’s needs, this manifests as a lower blood pressure and may cause lightheadedness or dizziness, or syncope (fainting).
Some types of arrhythmia result in cardiac arrest, or sudden death.
Medical assessment of the abnormality using an electrocardiogram is one way to diagnose and assess the risk of any given arrhythmia.
Tachyarrhythmias are the result of spontaneous action potentials arise from cardiac muscle cells.
Cardiac arrhythmia are often first detected by simple but nonspecific means: auscultation of the heartbeat with a stethoscope, or feeling for peripheral pulses. These cannot usually diagnose specific arrhythmia but can give a general indication of the heart rate and whether it is regular or irregular. Not all the electrical impulses of the heart produce audible or palpable beats; in many cardiac arrhythmias, the premature or abnormal beats do not produce an effective pumping action and are experienced as “skipped” beats.
The simplest specific diagnostic test for assessment of heart rhythm is the electrocardiogram (abbreviated ECG or EKG). A Holter monitor is an EKG recorded over a 24-hour period, to detect arrhythmias that may happen briefly and unpredictably throughout the day.
A more advanced study of the heart’s electrical activity can be performed to assess the source of the aberrant heart beats. This can be accomplished in an electrophysiology study, an endovascular procedure that uses a catheter to “listen” to the electrical activity from within the heart, additionally if the source of the arrhythmias is found, often the abnormal cells can be ablated and the arrhythmia can be permanently corrected. Transesophageal atrial stimulation (TAS) instead uses an electrode inserted through the esophagus to a part where the distance to the posterior wall of the left atrium is only approximately 5–6 mm (remaining constant in people of different age and weight). Transesophageal atrial stimulation can differentiate between atrial flutter, AV nodal reentrant tachycardia and orthodromic atrioventricular reentrant tachycardia. It can also evaluate the risk in people with Wolff–Parkinson–White syndrome, as well as terminate supraventricular tachycardia caused by re-entry.
The method of cardiac rhythm management depends firstly on whether the affected person is stable or unstable. Treatments may include physical maneuvers, medications, electricity conversion, or electro- or cryo-cautery.
In the United States, people admitted to the hospital with cardiac arrhythmia and conduction disorders with and without complications were admitted to the intensive care unit more than half the time in 2011.
A number of physical acts can increase parasympathetic nervous supply to the heart, resulting in blocking of electrical conduction through the AV node. This can slow down or stop a number of arrhythmias that originate above or at the AV node (see main article: supraventricular tachycardias). Parasympathetic nervous supply to the heart is via the vagus nerve, and these maneuvers are collectively known as vagal maneuvers.
There are many classes of antiarrhythmic medications, with different mechanisms of action and many different individual drugs within these classes. Although the goal of drug therapy is to prevent arrhythmia, nearly every anti arrhythmic drug has the potential to act as a pro-arrhythmic, and so must be carefully selected and used under medical supervision.
A number of other drugs can be useful in cardiac arrhythmias.
Several groups of drugs slow conduction through the heart, without actually preventing an arrhythmia. These drugs can be used to “rate control” a fast rhythm and make it physically tolerable for the patient.
Some arrhythmias promote blood clotting within the heart, and increase risk of embolus and stroke. Anticoagulant medications such as warfarin and heparins, and anti-platelet drugs such as aspirin can reduce the risk of clotting.
Arrhythmias may also be treated electrically, by applying a shock across the heart — either externally to the chest wall, or internally to the heart via implanted electrodes.
Cardioversion is either achieved pharmacologically or via the application of a shock synchronised to the underlying heartbeat. It is used for treatment of supraventricular tachycardias. In elective cardioversion, the recipient is usually sedated or lightly anesthetized for the procedure.
Defibrillation differs in that the shock is not synchronised. It is needed for the chaotic rhythm of ventricular fibrillation and is also used for pulseless ventricular tachycardia. Often, more electricity is required for defibrillation than for cardioversion. In most defibrillation, the recipient has lost consciousness so there is no need for sedation.
Defibrillation or cardioversion may be accomplished by an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).
Electrical treatment of arrhythmias also includes cardiac pacing. Temporary pacing may be necessary for reversible causes of very slow heartbeats, or bradycardia (for example, from drug overdose or myocardial infarction). A permanent pacemaker may be placed in situations where the bradycardia is not expected to recover.
Some cardiologists further sub-specialize into electrophysiology. In specialized catheter laboratories, they use fine probes inserted through the blood vessels to map electrical activity from within the heart. This allows abnormal areas of conduction to be located very accurately and subsequently destroyed by heat, cold, electrical, or laser probes in a process called catheter ablation.
This procedure may be completely curative for some forms of arrhythmia, but for others, the success rate remains disappointing. AV nodal reentrant tachycardia is often curable by ablating one of the pathways in the AV node (usually the slow pathway). Atrial fibrillation can also be treated, by performing a pulmonary vein isolation, but the results are less reliable.
Arrhythmias due to medications have been reported since the 1920s with the use of quinine. In the 1960s and 1970s problems with antihistamines and antipsychotics were discovered. It was not until the 1980s that the underlying issue, QTc prolongation was determined.