Understanding Abnormal Heart Rhythms

An abnormal heart rhythm is when your heart beats too slowly (under 60 beats per minute) or too quickly (above 100 beats per minute) reducing heart efficiency and volume pumped to the brain and other vital organs. Atrial arrhythmias can cause serious symptoms but ventricular arrhythmias are often immediately life-threatening or fatal and they are not discussed here.

Atrial Fibrillation a.k.a. AF and A Fib: the most common of heart arrhythmias which is not usually life threatening but can cause serious and life-threatening side effects, particularly formation of clots that can move to the brain and cause cerebral vascular accidents (CVA’s) a.k.a. strokes. Normally, the atrium (upper chambers of the heart) contract evenly and forcefully sending blood to the ventricles (lower chambers of the heart) to the lungs and organs but in AF, the atrium flutter instead of contract. Risk factors: Age (over 60), smoking, hypertension, heart valve disease, coronary bypass surgery, alcohol binge drinking and chronic use, obesity, sleep apnea. Go to this is a great slide show on atrial fibrillation.

Bradycardia: Heart rate that is below 60 beats per minute in non-athletes and is symptomatic (dizziness, shortness of breath, chest tightness). It is most often caused by age, scarring of the conduction system of the heart (surgery and heart attack), and medications. Many people with ongoing bradycardia eventually need a pacemaker to help the heart beat faster.

Sick Sinus Syndrome a.k.a. Sinus Node Disease or Dysfunction: A person with sick sinus syndrome may have heart rhythms that are too fast, too slow, punctuated by long pauses — or an alternating combination of all of these rhythm problems. Sick sinus syndrome is relatively uncommon, but the risk of developing sick sinus syndrome increases with age. Many people with sick sinus syndrome eventually need a pacemaker to keep the heart in a regular rhythm.

Symptoms may come and go but when they do occur, sick sinus syndrome symptoms may include:

  • Slower than normal pulse (bradycardia)
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fainting or near fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pains
  • A sensation of rapid, fluttering heartbeats (palpitations)

Many of these signs and symptoms are caused by reduced blood flow to the brain when the heart beats too fast or too slowly. Causes: Medications, formation of scar tissue, age, wear and tear of heart muscle.

Palpitations: Heart palpitations are the feelings of having rapid, fluttering or pounding heart. Heart palpitations can be triggered by excess caffeine, stress, exercise, medication or, rarely, a medical condition. Although heart palpitations can be worrisome, they’re usually harmless. In rare cases, heart palpitations can be a symptom of a more serious heart condition, such as an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia),that may require treatment.

Tachycardia: The heart beats too fast, above 100 bpm. Tachycardia is caused by a disruption of the electrical impulses conducted by the heart. Damage from a heart attack or heart disease, congenital heart disease, high blood pressure, smoking and other factors can contribute the disruption of impulses.


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