Heart arrhythmias are irregular heartbeats. Normally you don't feel your heartbeat, so if you notice your heart is beating too fast or slow, you should see your doctor. Some heart arrhythmias are serious, while others are not.
What are heart arrhythmias?
Arrhythmia is a heart condition where your heart beats abnormally. It is caused by a problem with the electrical signals that coordinate heartbeats. The heart can beat too fast, too slow, or irregularly.
Some people with heart arrhythmias have coronary heart disease underlying the problem. Some don't.
Learn more about the heart.
Some types of heart arrhythmias
Premature (extra) beats are the most common arrhythmia. Everybody gets these extra beats occasionally but most people don’t notice them. Some heart diseases can cause premature beats, but most of the time they are harmless. An increase in premature beats can happen because of stress, exertion from exercise, caffeine or nicotine.
Supraventricular arrhythmias are fast and often irregular heartbeats. The most common form is atrial fibrillation, where the top two chambers of the heart quiver instead of beating normally so the heart doesn't pump blood as effectively.
Ventricular arrhythmias are irregular heartbeats that start in the lower part of the heart. These are more serious and require medical attention.
Bradyarrhythmias (also known as bradycardia) are where the heartbeat is too slow. In some cases, this may make a person feel dizzy and lose consciousness.
Heart arrhythmia symptoms
Many people with heart arrhythmias have no symptoms at all. But you might become aware of your heat beat, which is known as having palpitations. You might feel:
- like your heart is skipping a beat
- like your heart is beating too hard or fast, which is known as having palpitations
- a racing heartbeat
- a slow heartbeat
- an irregular heartbeat
- a fluttering in your chest
- chest pain
- feeling lightheaded or dizzy
If you think you might have an arrhythmia, see your doctor.
You should call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if you feel your heart is beating in an unusual way and you:
Heart arrhythmia diagnosis
If your doctor suspects you have a heart arrhythmia they may recommend the following tests:
- An electrocardiogram (ECG) that measures and records the electrical activity of your heart. This can be done with a portable ECG known as a Holter monitor.
- Echocardiogram that uses sound waves to look at your heart.
- A stress test that measures the capacity of the heart during exercise.
- Electrophysiology studies that look at the electrical conduction of your heart.
- Heart catheterization, where a tube is inserted through the groin through to the heart.
- A holter monitor – a portable device that measures the heart’s electrical activity.
- Chest x-ray.
- Blood or urine tests.
Treatment for arrhythmias
Treatment for arrhythmias varies widely depending on which arrhythmia you have, your age and your other medical conditions. Your doctor will take these into consideration when recommending treatment. Many arrhythmias are harmless and no treatment is required.
If treatment is recommended, options can include:
- medication (for example beta-blocker medicines are sometimes used to control heart rate)
- implantable devices (such as a pacemaker which can assist with a slow heart rate), or an implantable cardiac defibrillators (ICD) for people at risk of more dangerous arrhythmias)
- surgical ablation (which is sometimes used to treat atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias)
- coronary bypass surgery
The goals of treatment sometimes include:
- to control the heart rate and keep the heart from beating too fast or too slow
- to prevent blood clots forming and thereby help prevent a stroke
- to re-establish the normal rhythm of the heart (if possible)
- to treat any underlying medical problem that may be contributing to the arrhythmia
People with arrhythmias often also have other types of heart problems. It's important to look after your heart to minimise your risk. For more information on a heart healthy lifestyle, visit the Heart Foundation website.
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Last reviewed: March 2020