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Understanding Arrhythmia

The most common type of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, but that’s not the only type. In this post, we explore the various types of irregular heartbeats and how they’re treated. 

At Heart & Vascular Institute, we specialize in cardiology, which means our skilled providers treat many patients who have various types of arrhythmias

An irregular heartbeat can be frightening, but understanding why it happens and what risks are associated with it can help ease your fears. 

The structure of your heart

You probably learned in school that your heart has four chambers that work together to pump blood through your body. The upper chambers (atria) and lower chambers (ventricles) are all connected by valves that open and close to keep your blood moving in the right direction. 

Of course, for everything to work properly, each chamber has to squeeze and release in a carefully timed rhythm. The sinus node, sometimes called your natural pacemaker, is the structure in your heart that controls the electrical impulse telling each part to contract and relax. 

Normal arrhythmias 

Anytime your heart deviates from the normal pattern of contracting and relaxing, you have an arrhythmia. 

When your heart beats faster than normal, more than 100 beats per minute in an adult, it’s an arrhythmia referred to as tachycardia. When it beats slower than normal, or fewer than 60 beats per minute, it’s called bradycardia. 

Sometimes, an arrhythmia is perfectly normal, such as when you exercise and your heart rate speeds up. Similarly, your heart rate likely slows down when you sleep.

Abnormal arrhythmias

If your heart rate speeds up while you’re relaxing, it’s an abnormal arrhythmia. The specific type of arrhythmia depends on which chamber of your heart the abnormality begins in, or where in the usual contracting and relaxing pattern a disruption occurs. 

Atrial fibrillation is the most common sort of arrhythmia and happens when the electrical impulses in the upper chambers of your heart are chaotic and the blood is inefficiently pumped into the other chambers. 

Other types of arrhythmias include atrial flutter, which is similar to atrial fibrillation but slightly less chaotic, and supraventricular tachycardia, which is any arrhythmia originating in the atria. 

Arrhythmias can also originate in your ventricles. Ventricular tachycardia happens when the electrical signals in your ventricles happen too quickly, and your heart can’t efficiently pump blood out to the rest of your body. 

If you have a healthy heart, ventricular tachycardia doesn’t necessarily cause problems. But if you have cardiovascular disease or a weakened heart, it could well be a medical emergency. 

Like atrial fibrillation, ventricular fibrillation results from chaotic electrical signals. Unless a normal rhythm is established within minutes, ventricular fibrillation can be fatal. If you have heart disease or experienced trauma, you’re at risk for this type of dangerous arrhythmia.

Treating arrhythmias

Although the idea that your heart isn’t beating normally can be scary, there are many effective treatments. Our experts have the diagnostic tools and expertise to identify whether you’re experiencing an arrhythmia and to suggest treatments that are likely to work for you. 

At Heart & Vascular Institute, treatment for arrhythmias varies depending on your situation, but may start with medication. In cases where medication doesn’t work, we may recommend cardioversion, catheter ablation, or a surgically implanted device like a pacemaker.

If you’ve been told you have an arrhythmia, or you suspect that you do, call Heart & Vascular Institute at one of our three convenient locations, in Dearborn, Detroit, and Southfield, Michigan, or book your appointment online.

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