Ever used the words, ‘My heart skipped a beat’, after a fright? Most of us have experienced a thumping pulse – or palpitations – on occasion, often a normal response to a sudden shock, stress or something exciting happening.
But palpitations can also be a sign of heart rhythm disorders, known as arrhythmias, which can be life-threatening. They are often treatable however, so if you’re concerned about any symptoms, get them checked out.
Arrhythmia means an irregular or abnormal heart rhythm, due to faults in the electrical signals responsible for keeping our hearts beating. They can originate in the heart’s upper chambers (surpraventricular) or lower chambers (ventricular), and might cause an abnormally slow pulse (bradycardia) or abnormally fast (tachycardia). They can also cause the heart to beat erratically, and with ‘skipped’ or premature (ectopic) beats.
Not all of them – although they might still cause symptoms that can impact on your quality of life, while some can be very serious. One of the most common is Atrial Fibrillation (AF), which causes an irregular and very fast pulse. In some cases, AF can cause strokes, so getting it diagnosed and, if necessary, treated is crucial. Some arrhythmias can cause sudden death syndrome, including Long QT syndrome. Close monitoring, as well as medication and surgical procedures such as a catheter ablation, in some cases, alongside lifestyle changes if necessary can all play a role in managing arrhythmias.
Arrhythmias are sometimes intermittent (which means your heart rhythm might sometimes be completely normal) and symptoms can vary. Some people barely notice them, while they might be debilitating for others. As well as being able to feel an irregular or abnormal pulse, symptoms include feeling lightheaded, dizzy and breathless, and blackouts or fainting (known as syncope), which occurs due to lack of oxygen reaching the brain and can also cause seizures.
The only way to be absolutely sure if you have a heart rhythm disorder is to see a specialist. Most arrhythmias will need to be ‘captured’ on a monitoring device. As well as ECG tests, you might need to wear a Holter monitor for 24 hours or a few days. If arrhythmia is suspected but symptoms are very intermittent, you might need to have an Implantable Loop Recorder (ILR) implanted under the skin on your chest, to monitor your heart for a number of months.
The severity of symptoms doesn’t always reflect the severity of the underlying cause, so it’s vital that any symptoms that might indicate arrhythmia are never ignored. Palpitations, dizziness and even fainting might seem very common and normal, but you should always tell your doctor and get things properly checked out.