Heart Health Heart Health Basics

What is an Arrhythmia?


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Summary & Participants

Has your heart ever skipped a beat or starting beating too fast? You may have experienced an arrhythmia. Tune in now to learn more.

Medically Reviewed On: July 21, 2012

Webcast Transcript


ANNOUNCER: At one point or another, everyone has sensed that their heart has "skipped a beat" or felt as though their heart was beating too fast. Both are symptoms of arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rhythms.

DOUGLAS P. ZIPES, MD: An arrhythmia is a disorder of the heartbeat. As I tell my patients, the heart is not a Swiss watch that beats with absolute, unerring regularity. Rather, it's a biologic organ that can have occasional hiccups.

ANNOUNCER: There are a variety of causes for arrhythmias. Some are congenital, or from birth. Others can be caused by an inflammation or infection of the heart. A heart attack or coronary disease can also cause abnormal heartbeats, as well as some antibiotics.

DOUGLAS P. ZIPES, MD: The arrhythmias are diagnosed in a variety of ways. The first, obviously, is you need to come to me, so something has to have triggered your feeling that, "Perhaps I'm having a heartbeat disorder."

There are different types of arrhythmias. Some are so brief in duration that the heart rate or rhythm isn't highly affected. Atrial fibrillation is a common arrhythmia and can vary in degree.

NANETTE KASS WENGER, MD: Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm. It simply means that your heart is beating irregularly, and sometimes fast. Sometimes atrial fibrillation is very well tolerated. And some patients, particularly when the rate of this rhythm abnormality is slow, have no symptoms. Many patients who have atrial fibrillation have palpitations, an uncomfortable sensation of their heart beating, and in some patients it adversely affects the function of the heart.

DOUGLAS P. ZIPES, MD: At the other end, the arrhythmia can be severe enough as to cause sudden death. That's what we call ventricular fibrillation. That means that the bottom chamber, the ventricles, fibrillate. They beat at a rate of 400 to 600 times a minute, and if you look at that it looks like a bag of squiggly worms. Without any contraction to force the blood to the brain, you lose consciousness, and if it's not stopped within three to five minutes you die.

Some arrhythmias definitely should be treated. Others should be ignored, and you get along with your life and forget about them. For the latter, it would be the occasional extra heartbeat that causes the palpitation, and shrug it off and just keep on chugging.