An arrhythmia occurs when the heart's regular rhythm changes, such as speeding up or slowing down, or when it beats irregularly.
In North America, about 5 million people get arrhythmias, most over the age of 50. Some also have heart disease, but many don't. In the vast majority of cases, the arrhythmia by itself isn't life-threatening, but it may predispose someone to a number of problems, such as a stroke. There are many different types of arrhythmias and their significance and consequences are varied.
The normal beating of the heart is controlled by electrical signals sent from a particular segment of heart muscle tissue called the sinus node. This natural pacemaker is located near the top of the right atrium. The heart is divided into four chambers: two atria on top, and two ventricles underneath. The job of the atria is to fill the ventricles with blood, which then do the heavy work of pumping it through the rest of the body.
In a normal heartbeat, an electrical pulse travels down the muscle tissue, activating the ventricles a split second after the atria. In arrhythmias, there's a problem with this signal. There are many different kinds of arrhythmias, but those that affect the ventricles are generally more serious than arrhythmias of the atria.
Arrhythmias are can be caused by either slow heartbeats (bradycardia) or fast heartbeats (tachycardia). A slow heart rate may occur due to:
- Sick sinus syndrome: This occurs when the heart’s natural pacemaker breaks down, causing slower transmission of the electrical signals that contract the heart. It occurs more frequently in the elderly and may worsen with certain medications (e.g., beta blockers) that also slow down the heart rate.
- Heart block: This occurs when the electrical signal sent from the upper heart chambers (atria) to the lower heart chambers (ventricles) is interrupted. Without this signal transmission, the heart cannot contract efficiently to pump blood out into the body.
A fast heart rate can be the result of:
- atrial fibrillation (AF): This involves disordered signals that are fired off in rapid succession, causing fibrillation, which is an uncoordinated quivering of the muscle wall of the atria. This has often been described as looking like a "bag of worms." The atria stop pumping blood effectively, yet enough blood still reaches the ventricles to allow the heart to function. AF is potentially dangerous, however, because blood can pool in the atrium and lead to clot formation. If one of these clots travels to the brain, it causes a stroke. AF is the most common form of harmful arrhythmia, affecting almost 1% of the population. It is more common in seniors, affecting about 5% of people over age 69. One study showed that 1 in 4 people over the age of 40 will develop AF.
- ventricular fibrillation (V-fib or VF): This is the most dangerous form of arrhythmia. The ventricles twitch but don't pump blood. If the twitching does not stop on its own or by a shock from a defibrillator, it is always fatal.