Heart electrical problems, also known as cardiac arrhythmias or heart rhythm disorders, refer to irregularities in the electrical impulses that coordinate the contraction of the heart muscle. These electrical signals are essential for maintaining a regular and synchronised heartbeat. When there are disruptions in this electrical system, various heart rhythm disorders can occur, leading to abnormal heartbeats (arrhythmias).
Heart electrical problems can be caused by a range of factors, including genetics, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, medications, and even lifestyle factors like excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption. Treatment options for these conditions vary depending on the type and severity but may include lifestyle changes, medications, cardiac procedures, or surgery.
It’s essential for individuals with suspected or diagnosed heart electrical problems to work closely with healthcare professionals to determine the underlying causes and develop an appropriate treatment plan to manage their condition effectively.
What are different types of arrhythmia?
Different types of arrhythmia include:
- Atrial fibrillation is a common arrhythmia characterised by rapid, irregular electrical activity in the atria (upper chambers of the heart, which receive blood from the body or the lungs).
- Atrial flutter is a type of arrhythmia where the atria beat too quickly but in a regular pattern.
- Ectopic heartbeats are abnormal heart rhythms originating from outside the normal electrical pathways of the heart.
- Paroxysmal arrhythmias are irregular heart rhythms that occur suddenly and unpredictably but return to normal spontaneously.
- Heart block, including atrioventricular heart block and bundle branch block, disrupts the electrical signals between the atria and ventricles, causing delays or blockages.
- Long QT syndrome, Brugada syndrome, and Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome are inherited arrhythmia disorders with distinct ECG patterns and associated risks.
- Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) is a rapid heart rhythm originating above the ventricles in the atria or atrioventricular node.
- Tachybrady syndrome, also known as sick sinus syndrome, involves episodes of both fast (tachycardia) and slow (bradycardia) heart rates due to dysfunction in the sinoatrial node.
- Ventricular tachycardia is a life-threatening arrhythmia originating in the ventricles, leading to fast and inefficient heartbeats.
- Ventricular fibrillation is a chaotic and deadly arrhythmia where the ventricles quiver instead of pumping blood, causing cardiac arrest.
What causes heart electrical problems?
There are multiple conditions that can result in an arrhythmia. These include;
- Heart conditions such as a heart attack, congenital heart disease, coronary heart disease, structural heart abnormalities (e.g. cardiomyopathy, valve disease, scarring, etc.)
- Other conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnea, thyroid problems, etc.
In addition to these causes, there are also various risk factors for heart electrical problems. These include:
- Being overweight
- Drinking too much alcohol or caffeine
- Drug abuse
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Some medications and supplements
- Stress or anxiety
What are the symptoms?
Heart electrical problems can display multiple symptoms, all varying in severity. One of the more typical symptoms is an irregular heartbeat. However, people with a healthy heart can also experience an irregular heart rhythm or palpitation when experiencing emotional or physical stress.
Other symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Fainting (syncope)
- Fluttering or pounding in your chest
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Racing heartbeat when feeling at the wrist (tachycardia)
- Slow heartbeat when feeling at the wrist (bradycardia)
- Shortness of breath
If you experience any of the above symptoms and suspect you might be experiencing heart electrical problems, it’s important that you talk to your GP.
How are heart electrical problems treated?
The treatment of heart electrical problems, also known as cardiac arrhythmias or heart rhythm disorders, can vary depending on the specific type and severity of the arrhythmia. Treatment options aim to restore normal heart rhythm, manage symptoms, reduce the risk of complications, and improve overall heart health.
Here are some common approaches to treating heart electrical problems:
Reducing the intake of stimulants like caffeine and alcohol can help control arrhythmias. A heart-healthy diet low in sodium and rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is also beneficial. Additionally, regular, moderate-intensity exercise can improve heart health and reduce the risk of arrhythmias. However, intense exercise may need to be avoided in some cases.
Antiarrhythmic medications are prescribed to help regulate the heart’s electrical activity. They may be used to slow down a fast heart rate (e.g., beta-blockers) or stabilise irregular rhythms (e.g., amiodarone). Patients with atrial fibrillation or other arrhythmias that increase the risk of blood clots may be prescribed anticoagulants (blood thinners) to prevent stroke.
Electrical Cardioversion involves delivering a controlled electrical shock to the heart to reset its rhythm. It is often used for atrial fibrillation or certain types of ventricular arrhythmias.
This minimally invasive procedure involves using catheters to target and destroy the tissue responsible for generating abnormal electrical signals in the heart. It is commonly used for supraventricular tachycardias and certain atrial arrhythmias.
- Pacemaker: A pacemaker is implanted under the skin and connected to the heart to regulate the heart rate in cases of bradycardia or certain types of heart block.
- Implantable Cardioverter-Defibrillator (ICD): An ICD is a device that monitors heart rhythms and delivers electric shocks to correct life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias.
- Cardiac Resynchronization Therapy (CRT): CRT devices are used for heart failure patients with arrhythmias to improve the synchronisation of heart contractions.
Follow-up care and monitoring
Regular check-ups with a healthcare provider are essential to monitor the effectiveness of treatment and adjust medications or interventions as needed. Continuous monitoring devices may be prescribed to record heart rhythms over an extended period to capture intermittent arrhythmias.
Treatment plans for heart electrical problems are highly individualised and depend on factors like the type of arrhythmia, the patient’s overall health, and their specific risk factors. It’s crucial for individuals with these conditions to work closely with their healthcare team to determine the most appropriate treatment approach and to make necessary lifestyle changes to support heart health.
Patients suspected of having heart electrical problems, also known as cardiac arrhythmias or heart rhythm disorders, may undergo various diagnostic tests and procedures to identify and characterise these conditions.
The choice of tests depends on the specific symptoms, medical history, and the type of arrhythmia suspected. Here are some common tests used to diagnose heart electrical problems:
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
An ECG is a simple and commonly used test to record the heart’s electrical activity. Electrodes are placed on the skin, and the machine produces a graph (ECG strip) that shows the heart’s rhythm and can identify irregularities.
A Holter monitor is a portable ECG device that continuously records the heart’s electrical activity over a 24- to 48-hour period or longer. It is useful for detecting intermittent arrhythmias that may not show up on a standard ECG.
Similar to a Holter monitor, an event monitor is a portable device worn by the patient. It is typically used for longer-term monitoring (e.g. up to 30 days) and is activated by the patient when they experience symptoms, as well as automatically if an arrhythmia is sensed. This helps capture irregularities at the time they occur. The monitor can be removed for a brief period (e.g. when having a shower) and then reattached.
An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart that provides detailed images of the heart’s structure and function. It can help identify structural abnormalities that may be causing arrhythmias.
Cardiac MRI or CT scan
These imaging techniques may be used to assess the heart’s structure and identify abnormalities that could lead to arrhythmias.
Blood tests may be conducted to check for underlying medical conditions, such as electrolyte imbalances, thyroid dysfunction, or markers of heart damage.
What are the potential complications of heart electrical problems?
Heart electrical problems, or cardiac arrhythmias, can lead to various complications depending on the type, severity, and duration of the arrhythmia. Potential complications of heart electrical problems include:
- Atrial fibrillation, a common arrhythmia, increases the risk of blood clot formation in the heart’s atria. If a clot dislodges and travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke.
- Persistent arrhythmias can weaken the heart muscle over time, leading to heart failure. Inefficient pumping of blood can result in symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and fluid retention.
- Certain ventricular arrhythmias, like ventricular fibrillation, can cause the heart to stop pumping blood effectively. This leads to sudden cardiac arrest, a medical emergency that requires immediate defibrillation and CPR to restore normal rhythm.
- Arrhythmias that cause a drop in blood flow to the brain can result in fainting spells, increasing the risk of injury if it occurs unexpectedly.
- Chronic or severe arrhythmias, particularly AFib, can reduce blood flow to the brain over time, potentially leading to cognitive impairment or dementia.
- In addition to stroke risk, arrhythmias can lead to the formation of blood clots elsewhere in the body, such as in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) or lungs (pulmonary embolism).
- Some arrhythmias, like ventricular tachycardia, can cause chest pain or angina due to reduced blood flow to the heart muscle.
- Certain arrhythmias, especially ventricular tachycardia, can contribute to the development of a cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle becomes weakened and enlarged.
Where can I go if I require treatment for heart electrical problems?
You can receive treatment for heart electrical problems at HeartWest, the largest cardiology group in the western and northwestern corridors of Melbourne, with 4 major locations and 3 satellite sites.
At HeartWest, our qualified experts will provide you with high quality cardiology care. You will experience nothing but professionalism, care and courtesy; from your first interaction with our staff, to going through tests, procedures and consultations.
Our cardiologists have expertise in all fields of adult cardiology, including;
- General cardiology
- Heart failure
- Cardiac imaging (including stress echocardiography)
- Interventional cardiology
- Electrophysiology & pacing
- Cardiothoracic surgery
Contact us for efficient and affordable specialist heart care services.