What are Cardiac Arrhythmias?

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: Heart Health, Arrhythmia
Last Reviewed 03/27/2014

“Something is wrong with my heartbeat. Is it serious?” 

What are Cardiac Arrhythmias?

Every cardiologist and family practitioner gets this question from concerned patients. It usually refers to cardiac arrhythmias, a common occurrence that brings many people in to see their doctor. 

So here is a bit of basic information you need to know about cardiac arrhythmias.

What is a Cardiac Arrhythmia? 

There are many types of arrhythmias, but basically the term refers to an irregular heart rhythm, which can also be noted as an irregular pulse.

Essentially, the heartbeat goes off cadence and this irregularity may or may not be felt in your body. Many people are aware of skipping, strongly palpitating or rapid heartbeats, while other asymptomatic individuals may learn of a cardiac arrhythmia at a doctor’s office visit when it shows upon an electrocardiogram.

How common are cardiac arrhythmias?
 Very common. Cardiac arrhythmias can affect both genders and all ages. About 20 percent or 25 percent of patients with cardiac arrhythmias are not in any danger.

What Causes Cardiac Arrhythmia?

Certain situations can trigger them, including the following:

  • Menopause, when hormone levels drop off

  • Depending on a person’s sensitivity, too much caffeine can set off skipped or rapid heartbeats

  • Excess sugar intake, as it causes fluctuations in insulin and adrenaline

  • Alcohol is another culprit, and the combination of alcohol and the sugars and caffeine in chocolate and sweets can generate quite intense arrhythmias among sensitive people. During the holiday season, when people often consume too much of both, I see a lot of this. In fact, I call it the Holiday Heart Syndrome

  • Everyday stress

  • Nutritionally, a deficiency of the mineral magnesium is a very common cause. Magnesium depletion runs rampant across all age groups, with postmenopausal women being the most deficient

  • Healthy young women can develop cardiac arrhythmias as a result of using birth control pills

  • Mitral valve prolapse, a condition more common in women

  • Altitude

  • Exposure to EMF/ WiFi frequencies

  • Ischemia, or lack of blood flow to the heart as happens during angina or a heart attack.

Are there different kinds of cardiac arrhythmias? Yes, there are several. The most common, called premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), occur when one of the two bottom chambers—the ventricles—of the heart contracts prematurely. 

A premature atrial contraction is when the atrium (one of the two top chambers of the heart) contracts prematurely. We frequently see PVCs in women who have mitral valve prolapse. These irregularities are usually not a problem for healthy people. 

Atrial fibrillation is another cardiac arrhythmia that often develops with aging, where the heart “regularly irregular,” though you may not feel it. 

Can Cardiac Arrhythmias be Deadly? 

The “café coronary” has been documented in connection with fatty meals, alcohol, and stressful news. The combination can trigger a fatal series of rapid fired ventricular beats call ventricular tachycardia (or V-tach for short). 

Ventricular tachycardia, is an intense and prolonged racing of the heart—like a runaway PVC. And V-tach is dangerous because it can deteriorate into ventricular fibrillation or cardiac arrest. We use nasal oxygen and intravenous (IV) medication to prevent and to treat these lethal arrhythmias during a heart attack, which is just one reason to get yourself to a hospital quickly if you suspect you are having one. 

In essence, during dangerously fast cardiac arrhythmias, the heart’s pumping mechanism loses traction; its rhythm becomes chaotic and it cannot supply its very own heart muscle (that does the pumping) and the rest of the body with adequate blood. 

I recall one of my patients, an Englishman, who’d routinely overindulge on gin and end up developing tachycardia. Obviously lacking good judgment, he would drive himself to the emergency room for treatment: dangerous for him and everyone else on the road! 

Despite warnings, he indulged himself one too many times and died when the tachycardia turned into deadly fibrillation, as it often does. These situations are particularly dangerous among patients with congestive heart failure or who have cardiomyopathy, where the heart muscle becomes inflamed, dilated, and doesn’t pump well or where the left ventricle is dilated. 

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