How Serious Is Having An Irregular Heartbeat?

Published: Friday, April 9, 2021

While we may say our heart skips a beat when it comes to falling in love. But when your heart literally skips a beat, it’s known as an arrhythmia.

Day in and day out, you likely don’t notice your heartbeat at all, especially if it’s functioning normally. However, when you experience stress or you’re performing strenuous exercise, you may notice a higher heart rate or even sensations of fluttering in your chest.

However, for individuals living with an arrhythmia, feelings and sensations such as this may occur without any exertion or stress at all.

“Put simply, arrhythmia is the medical name for an irregular heartbeat,” says Shalabh Chandra, MD, an electrophysiologist at Georgia Heart Institute. “There are many different forms of arrhythmias that can cause your heart to beat too quickly, too slowly or irregularly.”

If you’ve been diagnosed with an arrhythmia, is it a serious health issue? Dr. Chandra answers that question and provides key insights about this common heart condition below:

Q: What exactly is an arrhythmia?

Dr. Chandra: The heart’s electrical system is what coordinates each heartbeat and coordinates the contracting and pumping between its chambers. However, when that system is disrupted or not functioning correctly due to damage, disease or other factors, this can cause your heartbeat to become abnormal.

In some cases, an abnormal heartbeat may be temporary and will come and go (episodic) or it can be present all the time (persistent).

Q: What are the different types of arrhythmia?

Dr. Chandra: When your heart beats too fast, it’s called tachycardia. When your heart beats too slow, it’s called bradycardia. When your heart beats too early, it’s called premature contraction. And when your heart beats erratically, it’s called fibrillation.

You may have heard about atrial fibrillation, the most common type of arrhythmia, which is when your heart beats erratically and fast.

Q: What causes an arrhythmia?

Dr. Chandra: An irregular heartbeat can have many causes. If your heart has ever “skipped a beat” when you’re anxious about something, you know that your mental health can affect your heart.

In fact, arrhythmias can have physical, emotional and genetic causes, and in many cases, it’s a combination of several different factors. This can include everything from other medical or heart-related conditions or thyroid disorders.

There’s also an important distinction between triggers and causes. For individuals experiencing arrhythmia episodes, there are certain factors that can trigger an irregular heartbeat, such as dehydration, caffeine and stress.  

Q: Do arrhythmias have symptoms?

Dr. Chandra: When you experience an irregular heartbeat, you’ll likely notice some sensation in your chest and/or heart. Depending on the type of arrhythmia, it may feel like a skipped beat, fluttering or pounding in the chest.

Persistent arrhythmias can cause other symptoms to develop, including fatigue or weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, shortness of breath, sweating and chest pain or pressure.

Because these symptoms overlap with those of a heart attack, it’s important to be evaluated by a medical provider. If you’re diagnosed with an arrhythmia, your medical provider can recommend whether treatment is necessary and what type of treatment is best for your unique needs.

Q: Is an arrhythmia dangerous?

Dr. Chandra: It depends. At some point, every person experiences an arrhythmia, which probably feels like your heart is fluttering or racing.

In many cases, these irregular heartbeats are harmless and will resolve on their own. But when they occur persistently, they can be serious.

When your heart’s rhythm is disrupted, it isn’t pumping oxygenated blood efficiently, which can cause harm to the heart and the rest of the body.

If your heart beats too fast, for example, the heart’s ventricles may “quiver,” which can cause an abrupt loss of heart function known as sudden cardiac arrest. Other arrhythmias can also result in more serious health conditions; having atrial fibrillation is associated with a greatly increased risk of stroke.

Q: How are arrhythmias treated?

Dr. Chandra: While arrhythmias can be complex and serious, we have a robust array of diagnostics and treatment options available to treat every type of heart rhythm disorder.

At Georgia Heart Institute, we have an experienced team of fellowship-trained electrophysiologists – experts specializing in the treatment of arrhythmias – along with advanced practice providers, all working together to effectively diagnose and treat your arrhythmia.

Learn more about the innovative and comprehensive services we offer – and easily schedule your appointment online today!