Arrhythmias are heartbeats that are too fast, too slow or have irregular rhythms. While some arrhythmias are harmless, others can potentially be dangerous— even deadly.
Arrhythmias can cause serious symptoms as they increase a person’s risk for complications—such as stroke, heart failure or sudden cardiac arrest, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the Institutes of Health. Some arrhythmias can cause symptoms of dizziness, fainting and chest pain which needs to be evaluated by a doctor.
Common arrhythmia treatments include medicines, medical procedures and surgery.
Your doctor may prescribe medicines to regulate your heartbeat as a first line defense. This group of medicine is called antiarrhythmics and they are used to slow a heart that beats too fast, speed up a too slow heartbeat that is too slow or convert an abnormal rhythm to a nice and easy, regular pace.
Beta Blockers are medicines used to slow a fast heart rate. If you have atrial fibrillation, the most common type of serious arrhythmia, your doctor may prescribe calcium channel blockers or digoxin and adenosine, to slow your heartbeat, according to the American Heart Association (AHA) says.
“People who have atrial fibrillation and other types of arrhythmias are often treated with anticoagulants, or blood thinners, to reduce the risk of blood clots forming. Aspirin, warfarin (, the generic name for Coumadin,) and heparin are commonly used blood thinners,” says Dr. Rodrigo C. Chan, a Mesa, Arizona physician specializing in Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology, Cardiovascular Medicine and Internal Medicine.
"Reducing the risk of blood clots is critical to preventing blockages of blood flow to the brain artery or heart that can cause strokes or heart failure,” he said. “It is important to always take these medicines as prescribed by your physician and promptly report any side effects or if your condition worsens.”
Some medicines are also used to control some underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease or a thyroid condition, which might be causing an arrhythmia in the first place.
When medicines don’t work, your electrophysiologistcardiologist may recommend a procedure called catheter ablation to treat certain types of arrhythmias. During this procedure, a long, thin, flexible tube is inserted into a blood vessel in the patient’s arm, upper thigh or neck where it is skillfully guided into the heart. The tube is then used to send electrical impulses into the heart to find and destroy small areas of heart tissue responsible for triggering abnormal heartbeats.
The procedure has a 90 percent success rate and low risk of complications for the patient, according to the AHAHA. It is performed by cardiac specialists called electrophysiologists, and typically requires a short hospital stay.
Technologically advanced hospitals are equipped to perform catheter ablation with the use of a robotic control panel. While the procedure is essentially the same as manual catheter ablation, the robotic function allows your physician to perform the procedure with a greater degree of precision.
"Some abnormal rhythms require implants, such as a pacemaker, a small device placed under the skin of your chest or abdomen to help regulate your heartbeat to a normal rate. The device uses a sensor, triggered by electrical impulses when an irregular heartbeat occurs, to stimulate the heart to beat with a normal rhythm,” says Dr. Andrew Kaplan, a board certified cardiac electrophysiologist at Banner Heart Hospital in Mesa, Arizona.
Some arrhythmias are treated with a jolt of electricity delivered to the heart. This type of treatment is called a cardioversion or defibrillation, depending on which type of arrhythmia is being treated.
For example, people at risk for ventricular fibrillation are treated with a device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). Like a pacemaker, an ICD is a small device that’s placed under the skin in the chest.
Some arrhythmias are treated with surgery. Your doctor may opt for this treatment if surgery is already being done for another reason, such as repair of a heart valve.
“If coronary heart disease is causing arrhythmias, the physician may recommend coronary artery bypass grafting for his or her patient to improves blood supply to the heart muscle to reduce the risk of serious complications,” Dr. Kaplan said.
Sources: Diseases and Conditions Index: Arrhythmia. National Heart Lung Blood Institute. US Dept. of Health and Human Services and National Institutes of Health.
Arrhythmia Medicines. American Heart Association. Accessed online: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/PreventionTreatmentofArrhythmia/Medications-for-Arrhythmia_UCM_301990_Article.jsp
Robotic catheter ablation: Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Accessed at http://www.brighamandwomens.org/Medical_Professionals/education/publications/ppd/2007/catheterablation.aspx
Radiofrequency Ablation. American Heart Association. Accessed at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/PreventionTreatmentofArrhythmia/Ablation_UCM_301991_Article.jsp