By Rohan Wagle, M.D., F.A.C.C.
Your heart is meant to beat consistently at a rate compatible with the activity you’re doing at the time. Heart arrhythmias indicate that your heart is not beating the way it should. The electrical impulses that should coordinate your heartbeats are malfunctioning, causing your heart to beat too fast, too slowly, or irregularly, such as in the case of fluttering or a missed beat.
In many cases, arrhythmias are harmless, but they can be troublesome and even life-threatening.
Detection May Be Tricky
Detecting a heart arrhythmia can be tricky because it may not cause any signs or symptoms. Noticeable evidence of an arrhythmia does not indicate the seriousness of the condition. In other words, just because you can feel the effects of an irregular heartbeat, it doesn’t mean your arrhythmia is worse than that of someone who can’t feel it.
If you do have signs or symptoms, they are typically:
• A racing, slow, or fluttering heartbeat when you are at rest
• Chest pain
• Shortness of breath
• Lightheadedness or dizziness
• Fainting or feeling faint
There are two basic types of heart arrhythmia: tachycardia and bradycardia. Tachycardia indicates a resting heart rate greater than 100 beats per minute. Bradycardia indicates a resting heart rate less than 60 beat per minute.
To medically detect arrhythmia, your physician will begin with a physical exam and ask about or test for conditions that may trigger irregular heartbeat. If there’s enough cause to warrant further testing, he or she will likely order one of the following:
• An electrocardiogram (ECG) that can detect the electrical activity of your heart and measures the timing and duration of each electrical phase in your heartbeat.
• An echocardiogram that uses a hand-held device to produce images of your heart’s size, structure, and motion.
• A Holter monitor that records your heart rhythm while you wear it for 24 to 48 hours.
• A stress test that monitors your heart activity while you walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike.
More invasive testing can be done if these tests do not accurately detect an arrhythmia.
There are many things that can cause heart arrhythmias, from genetics to heart disease, but no matter the cause, the condition can be managed by leading a heart-healthy lifestyle. While your physician may prescribe medications or other treatments to manage your arrhythmia, lifestyle changes should be made in unison with them.
• Eat a healthy diet that's low in salt and saturated fats and rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
• Increase your physical activity but consult with your physician first to determine how far you can push your exercise intensity.
• Quit smoking.
• Maintain a healthy weight to reduce your risk of heart disease.
• Take measures to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels under control.
• Drink alcohol in moderation (1-2 drinks per day maximum).
• Begin practicing yoga, meditation, and relaxation techniques.
• Consider acupuncture.
• Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
If you’re concerned about your heartbeat being abnormal, the experts at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston can help. Our physicians are skilled in detecting heart arrhythmias and in recommending treatments and lifestyle changes to manage them.
Dr. Wagle is a board-certified cardiologist at Kelsey-Seybold. He cares for patients at Katy Clinic and Tanglewood Clinic. His clinical interests include coronary artery disease, heart failure, arrhythmias, valvular heart disease, echocardiography, nuclear cardiology, preventive cardiology, chest pain, hypertension, high cholesterol, and myocardial infarctions.