Hearts Skipping Beats: What Is an Arrhythmia?

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Have you ever felt your heart skip a beat? This expression means something very different to a physiologist than when the average person says it.

To better understand heart rhythm, it is essential to be familiar with the heart’s structure. The heart is organized into four chambers and is separated into an upper and a lower portion. The sinoatrial node (also known as the heart’s pacemaker) stimulates the four chambers to contract and relax in an organized fashion that indicates a healthy sinus rhythm. This cyclical contraction and relaxation pattern is known as our heart rate and occurs 60–100 times a minute in a healthy heart.

An abnormal heart rhythm, also known as an arrhythmia, typically falls into one of three categories:

  • A slow heart rate is when the heat beats less than 50 times per minute.
  • A fast heart rate is when the heart beats more than 110 times per minute.
  • An irregular heartbeat is when the heartbeat is out of sync and may beat out of rhythm.

An irregular heartbeat, also called “ectopic,” is different from the other types of arrhythmias. An irregular rhythm can feel as if your heart is fluttering or skipping a beat. It can also cause palpitations, lightheadedness or dizziness.

There are a few ways to detect an abnormal rhythm. Electrocardiogram, Holter monitor and loop recorder, also called a cardiac event recorder, are all tools that can help your cardiologist monitor your heart’s electrical activity and detect abnormalities. The situations in which these tests are used—and for how long they’re needed—differ, but they’re all used to ensure the arrhythmia is caught and, in turn, can be treated.

There are many aspects to treating an arrhythmia. Medication can prevent blood clots or adjust your heart rate. A cardioversion provides minor shocks to the body to restore an appropriate rhythm. Lastly, an implantable pacemaker sends electrical impulses to initiate the heart’s contraction phase to make sure it beats in the proper rhythm.

While there is a range of what is considered normal for the heart’s function, it’s important to be vigilant when monitoring any cardiac concerns. Fortunately, this is an area that is well-studied and continues to be thoroughly researched, offering myriad treatment options.

Lauren Walkon graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in physiology. She is pursuing a career as a physician.

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