Doctor checking patient's heart

When you heart beats normally, it pumps blood continuously and evenly throughout your body. But sometimes your heartbeat can go haywire. Changes to how your heart normally beats are called arrhythmias and can have serious consequences for your health.

Electrical impulses cause your heart’s upper and lower chambers — the atria and ventricles — to contract and expand. Blood gets pumped through your heart as the atria and ventricles alternate squeezing.

These electrical signals can become irregular or abnormal. This, in turn, can affect your heart rate (how fast your heart beats) and rhythm (how evenly it beats).

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Why a Normal Heartbeat Matters

A regular heartbeat provides a steady flow of blood to your organs, such as your lungs and brain. Arrhythmias prevent your heart from pumping blood effectively. When this happens, organs don’t get the steady flow of blood needed to do their job. They can become damaged or stop working altogether.

An irregular heartbeat or rhythm can be a warning sign that something is wrong with your heart. It also can be a warning sign for sudden cardiac arrest. This is when your heart suddenly stops beating and stops pumping blood to your body. If your heart isn’t restarted immediately, it can lead to death.

An irregular heartbeat isn’t always a warning sign. Your doctor can perform an electrocardiogram (ECG) to assess the seriousness of an irregular heartbeat.

A resting heart rate, or pulse, is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm), according to the American Heart Association. It’s the number of times your heart beats each minute while at rest.

Your heart rate can change throughout the day and depending on the situation. It can increase when you’re active, such as when you’re exercising. It also can increase when you’re sick or under stress. And it can slow down when you are resting or relaxed. Athletes, such as marathon runners, may have resting heart rates below 60 bpm.

Some medicines can increase or decrease your heart rate. Nicotine use, too much caffeine, and alcohol and drug use also can affect your heart rate.

Types and Signs of Arrhythmias

Arrhythmias fall into two basic types. Bradycardia is when your resting pulse rate is too slow (less than 60 bpm). Tachycardia is when your resting pulse rate is too fast (more than 100 bpm).

Some changes in how your heart beats may cause damage over time. Some heartbeat changes can be more severe and require immediate attention.

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib or AF, is the most common type of heart arrhythmia. An estimated 2.7 million to 6.1 million people in the United States have AFib, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

AFib often causes a fluttering, quivering feeling in your chest. It happens when your heart’s two upper chambers, or atria, pump out of sync. Having AFib increases your risk of stroke.

Symptoms of AFib may include:

  • Irregular, racing heartbeat. AFib can cause your heart to beat as fast as 170 bpm
  • Heart palpitations (an uncomfortable awareness of your heart beating, such as a rapid, fluttering, or pounding sensation)
  • Chest pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Reduced ability to exercise

Not everyone who has AFib knows it because not everyone has symptoms.

Diagnosing Arrhythmias

To help you get your heart rate and rhythm back to normal, your doctor will do a full physical examination. They may also order additional tests, including:

  • Blood work
  • Chest x-rays
  • An ECG
  • An echocardiogram
  • A Holter monitor
  • A heart event recorder
  • An electrophysiology (EP) study

Treatment for Irregular Heartbeats

Left untreated, arrhythmias can cause a host of health issues. Depending on the arrhythmia, complications may include low or high blood pressure, frequent fainting, heart failure, or cardiac arrest. That’s why it’s important to seek treatment promptly if you have symptoms.

Two things will determine your treatment plan: the type of arrhythmia you have and what’s causing it.

Treatment may include medicine to control your heart rate or heart rhythm. Your doctor may also prescribe blood thinners to prevent blood clots caused by reduced blood flow. Procedures to treat arrhythmias include cardioversion, which shocks your heart back into pumping normally. Or you may need an implantable device, such as a pacemaker or defibrillator, to help reset your heart’s abnormal electrical impulses. In some cases, you might need special surgery, such as cardiac ablation, to get your heart to work properly.

It’s important to detect arrhythmias as early as possible. To learn more about how to reduce your risk for or manage arrhythmias, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-876-2484 (1-855-UPMC HVI).

Sources

About Arrhythmia. American Heart Association. Link

All About Heart Rate (Pulse). American Heart Association. Link

Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Monitoring of Arrhythmia. American Heart Association. Link

Other Conditions Related to Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link.

Atrial Fibrillation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine.