Cardiac arrhythmia (also dysrhythmia) is a term for any of a large and heterogeneous group of conditions in which there is abnormal electrical activity in the heart. The heart beat may be too fast or too slow, and may be regular or irregular.
Some arrhythmias are life-threatening medical emergencies that can result in cardiac arrest and sudden death. Others cause aggravating symptoms such as an abnormal awareness of heart beat (palpitations), and may be merely annoying. Others may not be associated with any symptoms at all, but pre-dispose toward potentially life threatening stroke or embolus.
Some arrhythmias are very minor and can be regarded as normal variants. In fact, most people will sometimes feel their heart skip a beat, or give an occasional extra strong beat - neither of which is usually a cause for alarm.
The term sinus arrhythmia refers to a normal phenomenon of mild acceleration and slowing of the heart rate that occurs with breathing in and out. It is usually quite pronounced in children, and steadily lessens with age. This can also present during meditation breathing exercises that involve deep inhalings and breath holdings patterns.
The term cardiac arrhythmia covers a very large number of very different conditions.
The most common symptom of arrhythmia is an abnormal awareness of heartbeat, termed palpitations. These may be infrequent, frequent, or continuous. Some of these arrhythmias are harmless (though annoying) but many of them predispose to adverse outcomes.
Some arrhythmias do not cause symptoms, and are not associated with increased mortality. However, some asymptomatic arrhythmias are associated with adverse events. Examples include increase in risk of blood clotting within the heart, and also an insufficient amount of blood is transported to the heart because of weak heart beat, and thus increase the risk of embolisation and stroke, or increase in the risk of heart failure, or increase in the risk of sudden cardiac death.
If an arrhythmia results in a heart beat that is too fast, too slow or too weak to supply the body's needs, this manifests as a lower blood pressure and may cause lightheadedness or dizziness, or fainting.
Some types of arrhythmia result in cardiac arrest, or sudden death.
Medical assessment of the abnormality using an electrocardiogram is the best way to diagnose and assess the risk of any given arrhythmia.
Each heart beat originates as an electrical impulse from a small area of tissue in the right atrium of the heart called the sinus node or Sino-atrial node or SA node. The impulse initially causes both of the atria to contract, then activates the atrioventricular (or AV) node which is normally the only electrical connection between the atria and the ventricles or main pumping chambers. The impulse then spreads through both ventricles via the His Purkinje fibres causing a synchronised contraction of the heart muscle, and thus, the pulse.
In adults the normal resting heart rate ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute. The resting heart rate in children is much faster.
A slow rhythm, (less than 60 beats/min), is labelled bradycardia. This may be caused by a slowed signal from the sinus node (termed sinus bradycardia), a pause in the normal activity of the sinus node (termed sinus arrest), or by blocking of the electrical impulse on its way from the atria to the ventricles (termed AV block or heart block). Heart block comes in varying degrees and severity. It may be caused by reversible poisoning of the AV node (with drugs that impair conduction) or by irreversible damage to the node.
Any heart rate faster than 100 beats/minute is labelled tachycardia. Tachycardia may result in palpitation, however, tachycardia is not necessarily an arrhythmia. Increased heart rate is a normal response to physical exercise or emotional stress. This is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system on the sinus node, and is called sinus tachycardia. Other things that increase sympathetic nervous system activity in the heart include ingested or injected substances such as caffeine or amphetamines, and an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).
Tachycardia that is not sinus tachycardia usually results from the addition of abnormal impulses to the normal cardiac cycle. Abnormal impulses can begin by one of three mechanisms: automaticity, reentry or triggered activity. A specialised form of re-entry problem is termed fibrillation.
Any part of the heart that initiates an impulse without waiting for the sinoatrial node is called an ectopic focus, and is by definition a pathological phenomenon. This may cause a single premature beat now and then, or, if the ectopic focus fires more often than the sinoatrial node, it can produce a sustained abnormal rhythm. Rhythms produced by an ectopic focus in the atria, or by the atrioventricular node, are the least dangerous dysrhythmias; but they can still produce a decrease in the heart's pumping efficiency, because the signal reaches the various parts of the heart muscle with different timing to usual and can be responsible for poorly coordinated contraction.
Conditions that increase automaticity include sympathetic nervous system stimulation and hypoxia. The resulting heart rhythm depends on where the first signal begins: if it is the sinoatrial node, the rhythm remains normal but rapid; if it is an ectopic focus, many types of dysrhythmia can result.
By analogy, imagine a room full of people all given these instructions: "If you see anyone starting to stand up, then stand up for three seconds and sit back down." If people are quick enough to respond, the first person to stand will trigger a single wave which will then die out; but if there are stragglers on one side of the room, people who have already sat down will see them and start a second wave, and so on.
Atrial fibrillation affects the upper chambers of the heart, known as the atria. Atrial fibrillation may be due to serious underlying medical conditions, and should be evaluated by a physician. It is not typically a medical emergency.
Ventricular fibrillation occurs in the ventricles (lower chambers) of the heart; it is always a medical emergency. If left untreated, ventricular fibrillation (VF, or V-fib) can lead to death within minutes. When a heart goes into V-fib, effective pumping of the blood stops. V-fib is considered a form of cardiac arrest, and an individual suffering from it will not survive unless cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillation are provided immediately.
CPR can prolong the survival of the brain in the lack of a normal pulse, but defibrillation is the only intervention which can restore a healthy heart rhythm. Defibrillation is performed by applying an electric shock to the heart, which resets the cells, permitting a normal beat to re-establish itself.
It is also appropriate to classify by site of origin:
The simplest specific diagnostic test for assessment of heart rhythm is the electrocardiogram (abbreviated ECG or EKG). A Holter monitor is an EKG recorded over a 24-hour period, to detect dysrhythmias that may happen briefly and unpredictably throughout the day.
Causes of SADS in young people include viral myocarditis, long QT syndrome, Brugada syndrome, Catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia.
Treatments include physical maneuvers, antiarrhythmic drugs, other drugs, electricity, and electro or cryo cautery.
There are many classes of antiarrhythmic medications, with different mechanisms of action and many different individual drugs within these classes. Although the goal of drug therapy is to prevent arrhythmia, nearly every antiarrhythmic drug has the potential to act as a pro-arrhythmic, and so must be carefully selected and used under medical supervision.
Several groups of drugs slow conduction through the heart, without actually preventing an arrhythmia. These drugs can be used to "rate control" a fast rhythm and make it physically tolerable for a patient.
Some arrhythmias promote blood clotting within the heart, and increase risk of embolus and stroke. Anticoagulant medications such as warfarin and heparins, and anti-platelet drugs such as aspirin can reduce the risk of clotting.
Cardioversion is the application of a shock synchronised to the underlying heartbeat. It is used for treatment of supraventricular tachycardias. In elective cardioversion, the recipient is usually sedated or lightly anesthetized for the procedure.
Defibrillation differs in that the shock is not synchronised. It is needed for the chaotic rhythm of ventricular fibrillation and is also used for pulseless ventricular tachycardia. Often, more electricity is required for defibrillation than for cardioversion. In most defibrillation, the recipient has lost consciousness so there is no need for sedation.
Defibrillation or cardioversion may be accomplished by an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).
Electrical treatment of dysrhythmia also includes cardiac pacing. Temporary pacing may be necessary for reversible causes of very slow heartbeats, or bradycardia, (for example, from drug overdose or myocardial infarction). A permanent pacemaker may be placed in situations where the bradycardia is not expected to recover.
This may be completely curative for some forms of arrhythmia, but for others, the success rate remains disappointing. AV nodal reentrant tachycardia is often curable. Atrial fibrillation can also be treated with this technique (e.g. pulmonary vein isolation), but the results are less reliable.