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Causes and Symptoms of an Arrhythmia

Author:   Peter Sedesse MD

What is an Arrhythmia?

Arrhythmias are common and normally undetectable by the patient. Arrhythmia simply means abnormal heartbeat, which can include fast or slow rates as well as ´missing´ a beat, or even the heart muscles contracting out of sequence.  Although an arrhythmia is not uncommon, they can be dangerous however, and some need medical treatment while others can be controlled through diet or lifestyle changes.  There are many different types of arrhythmias which can have different causes and symptoms.  The main difference in the type of arrhythmia is what part of the heart is affected and what tissue type (nerve or muscle) is causing the arrhythmia.  Most arrhythmias have no symptoms and are only detected during a doctor´s visit.  In other cases, the symptoms can be present only while the arrhythmia is occurring, but in some cases, the arrhythmia can cause longer-lasting symptoms.

Causes of Arrhythmias

The most obvious cause of an arrhythmia is coronary disease or damage.  In this case, the pathway of the electrical impulse that regulates the heartbeat is altered.  Basically an electrical charge moves through the heart muscle, causes contractions in a precise order, having damaged heart muscle can change the pathway of the electrical charge and cause abnormal or delayed contractions.  An arrhythmia is rarely the first symptom of coronary disease, so more than likely a person with this cause of arrhythmia would already know the cause.  Some of the more serious forms of arrhythmia can require pacemakers or surgery to correct the problem.

The most common cause of an arrhythmia in healthy individuals would be caffeine or nicotine.  Even modest amounts of either substance can cause frequent arrhythmias in certain people.  While usually not detectable, some symptoms can become noticeable.  These include a thumping in the chest, or a fluttery feeling in the chest.  Obviously the treatment is to discontinue with the offending chemical.  If other symptoms develop, this can lead to a medical emergency.  These symptoms include dizziness and feinting, shortness of breath, fatigue and muscle weakness.

Another common cause of an arrhythmia is stress.  While this cause will progress similar to an arrhythmia caused by caffeine, obviously stress is not as easily discontinued as caffeine and can produce more serious health concerns.

The final causes of arrhythmia are exercise and electrolyte imbalances.  These two causes can go together as over-exercising and sweating can also result in electrolyte imbalances (potassium and sodium).  But they can happen singularly as well, there are many diseases or conditions that can lead to electrolyte imbalances, which in turn can cause an arrhythmia. There are also many medications that can affect electrolyte balances.  Obviously if you are exercising and start to feel a pounding or fluttering in your chest, or dizziness, it is time to slow down as these are symptoms of an arrhythmia.  If you are given a new medication and experience these symptoms, always inform your doctor.

Symptoms of Arrhythmias

The most common symptoms of an arrhythmia include a fluttering feeling in the chest, or sometimes a pounding feeling.  These symptoms of arrhythmia become more serious when they include dizziness, shortness of breath, weakness or even feinting.  The most common causes of an arrhythmia in otherwise healthy people include nicotine, caffeine, stress or exercise.  More serious causes include coronary heart disease, or an electrolyte imbalance caused by certain diseases.  Any persistence, or severity of these symptoms is a cause for a doctor or ER visit.

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