Arrhythmias, also known as cardiac arrhythmias, heart arrhythmias, or dysrhythmias, are irregularities in the heartbeat, including when it is too fast or too slow. A heart rate that is too fast – above 100 beats per minute in adults – is called tachycardia, and a heart rate that is too slow – below 60 beats per minute – is called bradycardia. Some types of arrhythmias have no symptoms. Symptoms, when present, may include palpitations or feeling a pause between heartbeats. In more serious cases, there may be lightheadedness, passing out, shortness of breath or chest pain. While most cases of arrhythmia are not serious, some predispose a person to complications such as stroke or heart failure. Others may result in sudden death.
Arrhythmias are often categorized into four groups: extra beats, supraventricular tachycardias, ventricular arrhythmias and bradyarrhythmias. Extra beats include premature atrial contractions, premature ventricular contractions and premature junctional contractions. Supraventricular tachycardias include atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter and paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia. Ventricular arrhythmias include ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia. Bradyarrhythmias are due to sinus node dysfunction or atrioventricular conduction disturbances. Arrhythmias are due to problems with the electrical conduction system of the heart. A number of tests can help with diagnosis, including an electrocardiogram (ECG) and Holter monitor.
Many arrhythmias can be effectively treated. Treatments may include medications, medical procedures such as inserting a pacemaker, and surgery. Medications for a fast heart rate may include beta blockers, or antiarrhythmic agents such as procainamide, which attempt to restore a normal heart rhythm. This latter group may have more significant side effects, especially if taken for a long period of time. Pacemakers are often used for slow heart rates. Those with an irregular heartbeat are often treated with blood thinners to reduce the risk of complications. Those who have severe symptoms from an arrhythmia or are medically unstable may receive urgent treatment with a controlled electric shock in the form of cardioversion or defibrillation.
Arrhythmia affects millions of people. In Europe and North America, as of 2014, atrial fibrillation affects about 2% to 3% of the population. Atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter resulted in 112,000 deaths in 2013, up from 29,000 in 1990. Sudden cardiac death is the cause of about half of deaths due to cardiovascular disease and about 15% of all deaths globally. About 80% of sudden cardiac death is the result of ventricular arrhythmias. Arrhythmias may occur at any age, but are more common among older people. Arrhythmias may also occur in children; however, the normal range for the heart rate varies with age.