Cardiac arrhythmia

Cardiac arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm, where the heart’s normal rhythm is disrupted. The heart may beat too slowly, too quickly or irregularly.

Most arrhythmias are harmless, but some can be serious and potentially fatal. Disturbed heart rhythms can restrict blood being pumped around the body, which may cause damage to the brain, heart and other organs.

Over two million people in the UK experience arrhythmias (source: NHS, accessed Jan 2019).


Causes of arrhythmia

Common causes of arrhythmia are:

  • stress
  • caffeine
  • tobacco
  • alcohol
  • diet pills
  • cough and cold medicines.

You may also be at risk of developing an arrhythmia if your heart tissue is damaged because of an illness, such as a heart attack, heart failure or inflammation of the heart.


Symptoms of arrhythmia

Initial symptoms may include:

  • heart palpitations
  • a skipped beat
  • a ‘fluttering’ sensation in the chest.

The longer the arrhythmia lasts, the more likely that this condition can affect the way the heart works, causing a range of secondary symptoms, including:

  • fatigue
  • blackouts (syncope)
  • dizziness
  • breathlessness
  • rapid heartbeat or pounding
  • chest pain.

In extreme cases, certain types of arrhythmia can cause sudden cardiac death.


Diagnosis of arrhythmia

A range of diagnostic tests for heart conditions are used to diagnose cardiac arrhythmia by our experts at Royal Brompton & Harefield Hospitals Specialist Care:

Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to diagnose arrhythmia

An ECG is the main test used to detect abnormal heart rhythms. Each beat of the heart is triggered by an electrical impulse generated by cells in the upper right heart chamber. An ECG translates this electrical activity into line tracings on paper.

Other tests include:

Echocardiogram to diagnose arrhythmia

This simple and painless test uses ultrasound waves to build a picture of the heart’s size, structure and function.

Exercise or stress test to diagnose arrhythmia

This test is usually carried out on patients where the arrhythmia is thought to be linked to exercise. Patients are asked to walk or run on a treadmill or ride an exercise bike whilst their heart rate and rhythms are monitored.

Tilt test to diagnose arrhythmia

For people who have experiences recurrent fainting spells, a tilt test to manage syncope shows how standing up from a lying down position can affect heart rate and blood pressure.


Treatment for arrhythmia

A bespoke treatment plan may be required if the arrhythmia is deemed clinically significant, in that it causes adverse symptoms or could cause complications in the future (such as heart failure or stroke). Treatment may include medication, non-surgical or surgical procedures.

However, most individuals who suffer from arrhythmia do not require treatment.

Medication to treat arrhythmia

Medication such as beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and specific drugs which can be used to slow down a fast heart rate, whilst a range of medications can be used to restore a normal heart rate. Blood thinning medications may also be used.

Medication – Medication such as beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and specific drugs which can be used to slow down a fast heart rate, whilst a range of medications can be used to restore a normal heart rate. Blood thinning medications may also be used.

Medical procedures to treat arrhythmia

A range of non-surgical medical procedures can be undertaken to help control arrhythmias. These include having a pacemakers or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) fitted. Both of these devices are inserted under the skin in the chest and use electrical impulses to shock the heart, which in turn helps to restore a normal heartbeat.

In some cases, a procedure called catheter ablation may also be used. This treatment effectively destroys the part of the heart that is causing the arrhythmia.

Surgery to treat arrhythmia

If heart disease is found to be the main cause of arrhythmia, then you may need to have a procedure called coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). This will help to improve blood flow to the heart.


Case Studies

Patient Video: Pacemaker fitting for arrhythmia

John shares his story about having treatment at Harefield Hospital, under the care of Consultant, Dr David Jones.
Read More >>