Heart rhythm problems (heart arrhythmias) occur when the electrical impulses in your heart that coordinate your heartbeats don't work properly, causing your heart to beat too fast, too slow or irregularly.
Heart arrhythmias (uh-RITH-me-uhs) may feel like a fluttering or racing heart, and they're often harmless. However, some heart arrhythmias may cause bothersome — sometimes even life-threatening — signs and symptoms.
Heart arrhythmia treatment can often control or eliminate irregular heartbeats. In addition, because troublesome heart arrhythmias are often made worse — or are even caused — by a weak or damaged heart, you may be able to reduce your arrhythmia risk by adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Arrhythmias may not cause any signs or symptoms. In fact, your doctor might find you have an arrhythmia before you do, during a routine examination. Noticeable signs and symptoms don't necessarily mean you have a serious problem, however.
Noticeable arrhythmia symptoms may include:
When to see a doctor
Ventricular fibrillation (VF) is one type of arrhythmia that can be deadly. It occurs when the heart beats with rapid, erratic electrical impulses. This causes pumping chambers in your heart (the ventricles) to quiver uselessly instead of pumping blood. Without an effective heartbeat, blood pressure plummets, cutting off blood supply to your vital organs. A person with ventricular fibrillation will collapse within seconds and soon won't be breathing or have a pulse. If this occurs, follow these steps:
Many things can lead to, or cause, an arrhythmia, including:
What's a normal heartbeat?
Your heart is divided into four chambers. The chambers on each half of your heart form two adjoining pumps, with an upper chamber (atrium) and a lower chamber (ventricle).
During a heartbeat, the atria contract and fill the relaxed ventricles with blood. This contraction starts when the sinus node — a small group of cells in your right atrium — sends an electrical impulse causing your right and left atria to contract.
The impulse then travels to the center of your heart, to the atrioventricular node that lies on the pathway between your atria and your ventricles. From here, the impulse exits the atrioventricular node and travels through your ventricles.
In a healthy heart, this process usually goes smoothly, resulting in a normal resting heart rate of 60 to 100 beats a minute. Conditioned athletes at rest commonly have a heart rate less than 60 beats a minute because their hearts are so efficient.
Types of arrhythmias
Not all tachycardias or bradycardias mean you have heart disease. For example, during exercise it's normal to develop tachycardia as the heart speeds up to provide your tissues with more oxygen-rich blood.
Tachycardias in the atria
Tachycardias in the ventricles
Bradycardia — a slow heartbeat
A normal heartbeat begins when a tiny cluster of cells called the sinus node sends an electrical signal (1). The signal then travels through the atria and passes through another group of cells called ...
Electrical signals fire from multiple locations in the atria, causing abnormal quivering of the atria (1). The atrioventricular node — your heart's natural pacemaker — is unable to ...
Atrial flutter is similar to atrial fibrillation but characterized by more-organized and more-rhythmic electrical impulses. ...
Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is the name for episodes of fast heart rate caused by an extra electrical pathway between the atria and the ventricles. The fast heart rate often occurs because the ...
Ventricular tachycardia — caused by abnormal electrical impulses originating in the ventricles — is a fast, regular beating of the heart. ...
During ventricular fibrillation, your ventricles quiver uselessly instead of pumping blood. ...
Certain factors may increase your risk of developing an arrhythmia. These include:
Certain arrhythmias may increase your risk of developing conditions such as:
Preparing for your appointment
If you think you may have a heart arrhythmia, make an appointment with your family doctor. If a heart arrhythmia is found early, your treatment may be easier and more effective. Eventually, however, you may be referred to a heart specialist (cardiologist).
If your heart arrhythmia persists for more than a few minutes or is accompanied by fainting, shortness of breath or chest pain, call 911 or your local emergency number or have someone drive you to the nearest emergency room.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For heart arrhythmias, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
To diagnose a heart arrhythmia, your doctor may ask about — or test for — conditions that may trigger your arrhythmia, such as heart disease or a problem with your thyroid gland. Your doctor may also perform heart-monitoring tests specific to arrhythmias. These may include:
If your doctor doesn't find an arrhythmia during those tests, he or she may try to trigger your arrhythmia with other tests, which may include:
Treatments and drugs
If you have an arrhythmia, treatment may or may not be necessary. Usually it's required only if the arrhythmia is causing significant symptoms or if it's putting you at risk of a more serious arrhythmia or arrhythmia complication.
Treating slow heartbeats
Treating fast heartbeats
An ICD is a battery-powered unit that's implanted near the left collarbone. One or more electrode-tipped wires from the ICD run through veins to the heart. The ICD continuously monitors your heart rhythm. If it detects a rhythm that's too slow, it paces the heart as a pacemaker would. If it detects VT or VF, it sends out low- or high-energy shocks to reset the heart to a normal rhythm.
Cardiac catheter ablation
In catheter ablation, catheters are threaded through the blood vessels to the inner heart, and electrodes at the catheter tips transmit energy to destroy a small spot of heart tissue. ...
A dual chamber pacemaker paces the atrium and ventricle. A biventricular pacemaker paces both ventricles. An implantable cardioverter-defibrillator can function as a pacemaker would. In addition, if ...
Home automated external defibrillator (AED)
An AED for home use is small and easy to carry. ...
Lifestyle and home remedies
Many arrhythmias can be blamed on underlying heart disease, so your doctor may suggest that, in addition to other treatments, you make lifestyle changes that will keep your heart as healthy as possible. Making healthy lifestyle changes can also help prevent heart arrhythmias from developing in the first place.
These lifestyle changes may include:
The role of omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient found mostly in fish, in the prevention and treatment of arrhythmias isn't yet clear. But it appears as though this substance may be helpful in preventing and treating some arrhythmias.
Last Updated: 2013-02-27
© 1998-2014 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Terms and conditions of use