Your heart helps to circulate oxygen-rich blood throughout your body, but what happens if your heart beats too fast or too slow? Get the answers to commonly asked questions about arrhythmias.
What Are Arrhythmias?
Your heart has a pathway dedicated to transmitting the electrical impulses that stimulate it to contract, or beat. Arrhythmias occur when the rate and/or rhythm of a person’s heartbeat is abnormal. When there is a problem with the heart’s electrical activity, as in the case of arrhythmias, the heart may beat too quickly (tachycardia) or too slowly (brachycardia). Arrhythmias may also cause your heart to skip beats or the upper or lower chambers of your heart to beat prematurely.
Are Arrhythmias Dangerous?
Because arrhythmias disrupt the rhythm of the heart, they can interfere with circulation and, depending on the type present, cause chest pain, a racing heartbeat, fatigue, fainting, shortness of breath and dizziness. In severe cases, arrhythmias can raise your risk of heart attack, stroke or cardiac arrest, which occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating.
Fortunately, most arrhythmias aren’t serious health threats. When treatment is necessary to relieve symptoms, control your heart rate or prevent complications, strategies may include medications, pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators or radiofrequency ablation.
Can Arrhythmias Be Prevented?
There are many reasons why a person may develop an arrhythmia. Sometimes, the cause is associated with a lifestyle choice—like smoking cigarettes, or drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages—and may be corrected by avoiding the substance in question. Arrhythmias stemming from other causes may not be so easy to prevent. For example, taking certain medications and medical conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, and an underactive or overactive thyroid gland can also contribute.
In general, experts recommend employing the same heart-healthy strategies used to prevent heart disease to prevent arrhythmias. Even if eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly doesn’t keep an arrhythmia from developing, it may help offset any increases in stroke or heart attack risk that an arrhythmia may present.
Taking a Closer Look at Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a serious form of arrhythmia that affects as many as 2.7 million Americans. AF affects the way the upper chambers of the heart—the atria—beat. In people with atrial fibrillation, the heart may beat as many as 100 to 175 times per minute, and the heartbeat is often described as an irregular quiver, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. People may have temporary episodes of atrial fibrillation or permanently experience the irregular heartbeat.
AF can cause blood clots, so one of the most dangerous complications of AF is stroke. People with AF are four to six times more likely to have a stroke, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. For this reason, people with AF should be extra vigilant about heart health and stroke prevention.
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