Atrial Fibrillation Frequently Asked Questions
Click the questions below to find out the answers to the most commonly asked questions about arrhythmia.
A heart arrhythmia is a change in the regular rhythm of the heartbeat. The heart may seem to skip a beat, beat irregularly, very fast or very slowly.
No, not necessarily. Many arrhythmias occur in people who do not have underlying heart disease.
Many times, there is no obvious cause of an arrhythmia. Heart disease may cause arrhythmias. Other causes include stress, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, diet pills, and cough and cold medicines. One of the most common arrhythmias, sinus arrhythmia, can occur normally when a person takes a breath.
If you feel an arrhythmia, consult your doctor. Most people with arrhythmias have nothing to fear.
They do not need extensive exams or special treatments for their condition.
In some people, arrhythmias are associated with heart disease. In these cases, heart disease, not the arrhythmia, poses the greatest risk.
People with serious symptoms need medical treatment to keep the heartbeat regular. Learn more about the various forms of treatment
Arrhythmias occur most often in middle-aged and older adults. As people get older, they are more likely to experience an arrhythmia.
An arrhythmia can be silent and not cause any symptoms. However, among people who experience symptoms, common complaints include:
- Fast or slow heartbeat (palpitations)
- Skipping beats - changes in the pattern of your heart’s rhythm
- Light-headedness, dizziness
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Heart block is a condition in which the electrical signal cannot travel normally down the special pathways to the ventricles. For example, the signal from the atria to the ventricle may be (1) delayed, but each one conducted; (2) delayed with only some getting through; or (3) completely interrupted. If there is no conduction, the beat generally originates from the ventricles and is very slow.
Sometimes an arrhythmia can be heard when your doctor listens to your heart through a stethoscope. However, an electrocardiogram is the most precise way to diagnose an arrhythmia. An arrhythmia may not occur at the time of the exam even though symptoms are present other times. When this happens, additional tests may be done to find out whether an arrhythmia is causing your symptoms.
First, your doctor will take a medical history and conduct a thorough physical exam. Then one or more tests may be used to check for an arrhythmia and to decide whether it is caused by heart disease.
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): Disks are placed on the chest and connected by wires to a recording machine. This records the electrical activity of your heart. The heart's electrical signals cause a pen to draw lines across a strip of graph paper in the ECG machine. The doctor studies the shapes of these lines to check for any changes in the normal rhythm. The types of ECGs are:
Resting ECG: The patient lies down for a few minutes while a record is made. In this type of ECG, disks are attached to the patient's arms and legs as well as to the chest.
Exercise ECG (stress test): The patient exercises either on a treadmill machine or bicycle while connected to the ECG machine. This test tells whether exercise causes arrhythmias or makes them worse or whether there is evidence of inadequate blood flow to the heart muscle (ischemia).
24-hour ECG (Holter) monitoring: The patient goes about his or her usual activities while wearing a small, portable tape recorder that connects to the disks on the patient's chest. Over time, this test shows changes in rhythm that may not be detected during a resting or exercise ECG.
Transtelephonic monitoring: The patient wears the tape recorder and disks over a period of a few days to several weeks. When the patient feels an arrhythmia, he or she telephones a monitoring station where the record is made. If access to a telephone is not possible, the patient has the option of activating the monitor's memory function. Later, when a telephone is accessible, the patient can transmit the recorded information from the memory to the monitoring station. Transtelephonic monitoring can reveal arrhythmias that occur only once every few days or weeks.
Electrophysiologic study (EPS): Very thin, flexible tubes (catheters) are placed in a vein of an arm or leg and move to the right atrium and ventricle. This procedure allows doctors to find the site and type of arrhythmia and how it responds to treatment.
Many arrhythmias require no treatment. However, when treatment is needed, Memorial Hermann Southwest offers several options, depending on the type of arrhythmia you have and whether you have other health conditions. Learn more about the different types of arrhythmia treatments on our treatment page
The doctors at Memorial Hermann Southwest are renowned experts at treating all types of arrhythmias. If you had been treated in the past with less than optimal results, come talk to one of our physicians. Technology and science have evolved and a cure may be possible for you now.
Although medication offers one approach to treatment it does not offer a cure. Surgery often provides complete relief from arrhythmia and its dangers.
The most common causes of arrhythmia are heart disease, caffeine consumption or alcohol consumption. You can help prevent arrhythmia by living a heart-healthy lifestyle and avoiding excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) supports basic research on normal and abnormal electrical activity in the heart to understand how arrhythmias develop. Clinical studies are taking place in hospitals around the country to improve the diagnosis and management of different arrhythmias. These studies along with basic research will eventually lead to better diagnosis and treatments.
The following organizations provide excellent information about heart disease, its causes, treatments and prevention.
Portions of this information were provided by the U.S. Department Of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.