What are heart arrhythmias?
Arrhythmia is a heart condition where your heart beats irregularly. It is caused by a problem with the electrical signals that coordinate heartbeats. The heart can beat too fast, too slow, or irregularly (faster and then slower over a period of time).
Some people with heart arrhythmias have coronary heart disease underlying the problem. Some don't.
Learn more about the heart.
Types of heart arrhythmias
Premature (extra) beats are the most common. Some heart diseases can cause premature beats, but most of the time they are harmless. 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 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 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.
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.
- A stress test that measures the capacity of the heart during exercise.
- A tilt table test if you have symptoms of fainting which measures changes in your heart rate with a change in position from lying down to standing up.
- Electrophysiology studies that look at the electrical conduction of your heart.
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)
- surgical ablation (as is sometimes used to treat atrial fibrillation).
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.
Last reviewed: December 2015