Arrhythmias | William G. & Mary A. Ryan Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine | Loyola Medicine


Overview and Facts about Arrhythmias

A healthy heart beats with a regular rhythm so it can provide your body’s organs and tissues with a steady supply of blood and oxygen. Cardiac arrhythmias are abnormal heartbeats.

A shift from the normal rate of the heart’s electrical impulses can cause it to beat too slowly, too quickly, or in an erratic pattern. When your heart is not beating properly, it is unable to pump blood effectively.

Over time, this can cause damage to your brain, lungs, and other organs.  

Signs and Symptoms of Arrhythmias

There are several different arrhythmias, including:

  • Bradycardia: abnormally slow heartbeat
  • Atrial fibrillation: irregular contraction of the heart’s upper chambers
  • Ventricular fibrillation: irregular contraction of the heart’s lower chambers
  • Premature contraction: early heartbeat
  • Conduction disorders: disruption of electrical impulses to the heart

While some people experience no symptoms, common signs and symptoms of arrhythmias may include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating
  • Fainting or near fainting

Causes and Risk Factors of Arrhythmias

Even if you appear healthy and you do not have heart disease, you may still experience arrhythmias. However, if you have heart disease, you are considered high risk for an arrhythmia. The cause of arrhythmia is not always known, so the best way to reduce the risk is by preventing and reducing heart problems, such as blocked arteries and high blood pressure. The following heart conditions can increase your risk of developing arrhythmias:

  • Coronary heart disease: This is caused by a build-up of plaque in the blood vessels, which supply the heart with blood.  
  • Heart attack: Often, a heart attack can alter the heart’s electrical impulses, which increases the risk of arrhythmia.
  • Heart valve disease: Weak or leaking heart valves can cause arrhythmia.
  • Endocarditis: This type of inflammation of the heart muscle often results in atrial fibrillation.
  • Congenital heart disorders: People who are born with a heart condition may have difficulty producing a regular heartbeat.

Tests and Diagnosis of Arrhythmias

Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following tests:

  • Stress test: You will run or walk on a treadmill while your heart rate is monitored to measure irregular heartbeat.
  • Holter monitor: You will wear this device for 24 hours. During this time, it will record your heart’s electrical activity.
  • Transtelephonic monitor: If you are experiencing brief or infrequent arrhythmias, this type of monitor can be worn for one or two months to record information about your heart’s electrical impulses.
  • Tilt-table test: If you have been experiencing fainting spells, this test will show how your blood pressure and heart rate shift when you change position. 
  • Echocardiogram: This test uses ultrasound waves to measure the size of your heart, its structure, and its motion.

Treatment and Care for Arrhythmias

Treatment will differ depending on the type and severity of your arrhythmia. Your doctor may recommend an implantable device, such as a pacemaker or defibrillator, to maintain a normal heartbeat. More severe cases may require heart surgery.