The heart normally beats about 60 to 80 times each minute. The pattern is regular, and increases or decreases in response to activity levels. Special heart cells send electrical signals throughout the heart. These signals cause the heart muscle to contract. This squeezes blood from the heart to the body and the lungs.
If a heart attack, infection, medication, or a disease damages the heart, those special cells may not work properly. If the signals are not sent often enough, other parts of the heart will react, causing a slower, irregular, or faster heart rate. A slower heart rate may not pump enough blood for the body’s needs. This may result in feeling lightheaded, tired, or faint. With an irregular or rapid heart rate, a person may feel that his heart is racing or skipping beats. When the heart beats too fast, it can fail to pump enough blood.
Some abnormal heartbeats are little more than an annoyance, while others can be life-threatening. If the part of the heart that pumps the blood beats too rapidly, too irregularly, or stops beating, the person could faint or even die.
The diagnosis of abnormal heartbeats is usually made with an electrocardiogram, also called an EKG. If the irregular heart rate happens frequently, it may be seen on a routine EKG in the doctor’s office. Sometimes a device called a Holter monitor will be worn for 24 to 48 hours to record a longer EKG so that the abnormal beats can be seen.
There are many causes for an abnormal heartbeat. Besides heart attacks, infections, and diseases, some drugs can also cause abnormal heartbeats. So can stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine. A person may also be born with an abnormal heartbeat.
The treatment of abnormal heartbeats depends on the cause. Stopping stimulants, such as tea, coffee, and cigarettes, may help. Medications may be needed to stabilize the heart rate. If the heart is too slow, a pacemaker, a device to control the heart rate, can be used. If the heart beats too irregularly or too fast, surgery or a special device to shock the heart may be needed.