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When you should worry about an irregular heartbeat

Many of us take for granted the organ that keeps us going every day — the heart. With its slow and steady rhythm, beating roughly 4,800 times every hour, your heart keeps you alive.

But what happens when that familiar rhythm starts to change?

You’ve heard the beep, beep of a heart monitor, or seen the narrow strips of graph paper showing sharp peaks and valleys of a heart beating. Each device provides a record of an important sign of health: the electrical impulses of the heart. When these impulses follow each other too quickly, too slowly or unevenly, it’s a warning sign.

Irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmias, interrupt how the heart pumps blood. For example, they might keep the lower chambers (ventricles) from filling with blood, or not pump enough blood. Other arrhythmias affect the upper chambers of the heart (the atria).

Many arrhythmias are temporary and not life threatening. They can be caused by anxiety or consuming high amounts of alcohol or caffeine. In more serious cases, an abnormal heart rhythm can be a sign of heart disease or other medical conditions.

Related: What’s your risk of heart disease?

When the symptoms of arrhythmia persist, they can lead to poor quality of life and life-threatening conditions. These are the symptoms to watch for:

  • Sensation of a “fluttering” heartbeat
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath

If you experience the above symptoms and are concerned about arrhythmia, talk to your doctor, especially if you have a medical condition like diabetes or high blood pressure, or a family history of heart disease.

Even minor symptoms from arrhythmia can be disabling and affect your quality of life. More serious conditions related to arrhythmia include heart failure, heart disease, sleep apnea, chronic fatigue, stroke and cardiac arrest.

Depending on the severity and cause of arrhythmia, lifestyle changes including a healthier diet, increased exercise and stress reduction are often part of patients’ care plans, along with medicine. Other patients may need advanced procedures or surgery. Treatment for an arrhythmia will vary depending on your particular situation. Talk to your doctor about which options may be right for you.

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Learn more about heart and vascular care at Baylor Scott & White Health, or call 1.844.BSW.DOCS to schedule an appointment with a physician near you.

About the author

Praveen K. Rao, MD
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Praveen K. Rao, MD, is a cardiac electrophysiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas and Baylor University Medical Center. His areas of expertise include ventricular arrhythmias, premature ventricular complexes, atrial fibrillation, supraventricular tachycardia, pacemakers, defibrillators and cardiac resynchronization therapy. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Dr. Rao subsequently completed a residency in internal medicine and fellowships in cardiovascular disease and cardiac electrophysiology at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. He is also an active member of the Heart Rhythm Society and the American College of Cardiology.

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When you should worry about an irregular heartbeat