Health Q&A

Cardiac arrhythmia: did your heart just skip a beat … or is it something more serious?

June 9, 2017

You look up.

Your eyes lock.

The world stops.

Your heart skips a beat …

And you just know: you’ve found the one.

Many a famous tale of love and passion has started this way. And many of us have been lucky enough to experience the bittersweet pangs of true love’s stirrings.

While true love may be rare, that breath-taking moment when your heart seems to leave its moorings and change its beat is something most of us will feel at some time or another.

And, in most cases, that’s perfectly natural… and perfectly safe.

When the skipped beats portend something more serious

However, sometimes, there really IS cause for concern.

On their website heart.org, the American Heart Association shares some comforting perspective:

‘Don’t panic if you’ve occasionally had these symptoms. Arrhythmias are extremely common, especially as you get older. Each year millions of people have them.’

The heart is run on a series of perfectly-timed electrical pulses. Sometimes, these can go out of rhythm. This could be the result of exertion or exercise, medications, lack of sleep, stress, or any of a range of other factors in our modern lifestyles.

A single beat that arrives a little too late, or slightly earlier than usual, is often too subtle to be felt. When it is, it feels like a flutter and may even be termed a ‘palpitation’.

Cardiac arrhythmia: when it’s time to worry

managing cardiac arrhythmia is simple with Topmed

When the electrical impulses in the heart malfunction, the heart may beat too fast or too slowly. Over time, if this keeps happening, it can affect how well the heart functions. Many people aren’t aware of any physical sensations when this happens. There are some symptoms to watch for, though.

Symptoms of cardiac arrhythmia

The most common symptoms of the condition include:

  • Feeling lightheaded and/or dizzy
  • Pain in the chest
  • Palpitations in the chest or neck
  • Rapid heartbeat or pounding heart
  • A sensation of slowed heartbeat
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

In severe cases, cardiac arrhythmia can contribute to the development of heart disease, or result in a heart attack. That’s why it’s so important to speak to your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

Diagnosis

An official diagnosis of cardiac arrhythmia can only be made by a trained physician. The first place to start in detecting an arrhythmia is simply to monitor your pulse. A nurse, pharmacist, or doctor can do this, or you can monitor your own pulse. For an official diagnosis – and reliable treatment – it’s always best to get a professional consultation, though.

Lab tests and imaging may be required to get a big picture view of the issue. Specialists will perform a range of tests to determine the condition and its extent. These include:

  • Holter monitor (continuous ambulatory electrocardiographic monitor)
  • Transtelephonic monitor (or event recorder)
  • Treadmill testing (Exercise Stress Test or Stress Test)
  • Tilt-Table Test
  • Electrophysiologic testing – (EP study)
  • Oesophagal electrophysiologic procedure
  • Echocardiogram

The American Heart Association explains each test in much more detail on their website, here.

What causes cardiac arrhythmia?

Medicine Net explains that ‘arrhythmias may be caused by many different factors, including: 

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Electrolyte imbalances in your blood (such as sodium or potassium)
  • Changes in your heart muscle’

There may also be a genetic link, so if someone in your family has the condition and you develop symptoms, contact your GP as soon as you can.

The good news is that an irregular heartbeat can be treated by your medical practitioner.

Treatment options for cardiac arrhythmia

Treatments fall into four main categories: medications; medical procedures; medical devices; and supportive care.

Arrhythmia medications

  • Antiarrhythmic agents will help control abnormal or irregular heart rhythms.
  • Calcium channel blockers relax the blood vessels, allowing them to do their job properly.
  • Beta blockers slow heart rate and reduce blood pressure.
  • Dietary supplements support overall health.

Medical procedures for treating arrhythmia

  • Cardioversion uses electrical shocks to restore the normal heart rhythm of arrhythmia patients.
  • Radiofrequency ablation is a process in which an electrical current is produced by a radio wave, and used to remove tissue that could be contributing to the irregular heartbeat.

Devices to aid arrhythmia patients

  • Most of us have heard of pacemakers. These small devices are surgically implanted into a patient’s chest or abdomen. From there, they send out electrical signals that keep the heart beating normally.
  • Taking the pacemaker concept one step further, an implantable cardioverter defibrillator is another small device that may be implanted into the abdomen or chest. It shocks the heart if the heartbeat becomes dangerously irregular.

healthy heart with topmedSupportive care

Supportive care for cardiac arrhythmia patients takes the form of cardiac monitoring. The patient and their family (or caregivers) learn the steps to monitor heart rate and health, as well as primary care tactics for an emergency.

Regular visits to the cardiologist support this treatment and make sure it stays on track.

Cardiac arrhythmia can be a chronic condition. Managed properly, though, there’s no reason why most arrhythmia sufferers won’t enjoy a long, healthy, normal life. The key is early diagnosis and proper care. At Topmed we have a range of medical cover options to suit your lifestyle and health needs, making sure you get the care you need, when you need it.