An arrhythmia is any abnormal electrical pattern of the heart, including a heartbeat that is too fast (tachycardia), too slow (bradycardia), irregular or if electrical signals come from the wrong place. The normal electrical pattern of the heart is called “sinus rhythm,” where each heartbeat starts from its natural pacemaker spot that is located in the top right compartment of the heart (the right atrium). This electrical signal then travels from the top half of the heart (the right and left atrium) down to the bottom half of the heart (the right and left ventricle) using a special electrical system. If there is a problem with the normal parts of the heart’s electrical system, the heart can beat too slowly.
Abnormal fast heart rhythms can occur when one or more spots “wake up” and start firing off electrical signals, or when the heart gets stuck in an electrical short-circuit due to a variety of causes. These fast rhythms can come from the heart’s upper chambers (supraventricular or atrial arrhythmias) or lower chambers (ventricular arrhythmias).
Arrhythmias can range from being just single extra heartbeats, to longer episodes that come and go, to abnormal rhythms that are permanent. Many arrhythmias are not dangerous and are treated because of the symptoms they cause, but others can be serious and even life-threatening, and require prompt or emergency treatment.
There is a wide range of conditions that can cause arrhythmias, including heart conditions present from birth, heart problems that happen later in life (such as heart attacks, valve problems, heart failure and other heart conditions), high blood pressure, thyroid problems, sleep apnea, lung disease and electrolyte problems, just to name a few. Sometimes arrhythmias are caused by specific triggers, such as the use of alcohol and other drugs, smoking, heart surgery, infections, acid reflux, stress and other causes.