What is arrhythmia? An arrhythmia is a change in the regular beat of the heart. The heart may seem to skip a beat or beat irregularly or very fast or very slowly.
Does having an arrhythmia mean that a person has heart disease?
Many times, there is no recognizable cause of an arrhythmia. Heart disease may cause arrhythmias. Other causes include: stress, caffeine, tobacco, diet pills, and cough and cold medicines.
Are arrhythmias serious?
The vast majority of people with arrhythmias have nothing to fear. They do not need extensive exams or special treatments for their condition.

In some people, arrhythmia are associated with heart disease. In these cases, heart disease, not the arrhythmia, poses the greatest risk to the patient.

In a very small number of people with serious symptoms, arrhythmia themselves are dangerous. These arrhythmias require medical treatment to keep the heartbeat regular. For example, a few people have a very slow heartbeat (bradycardia), Causing them to feel lightheaded or faint. If left untreated, the heart may stop beating and these people could die.

How common are arrhythmias?
Arrhythmias occur commonly in middle-age adults. As people get older, they are more likely to experience an arrhythmia.
What are the symptoms of an arrhythmia?
Most people have felt their heart beat very fast, experienced a fluttering in their chest, or notice that their heart skipped a beat. Almost everyone has also felt dizzy, faint, or out of breath or had chest pains at one time of another. One of the most common arrhythmia is sinus arrhythmia, the change in heart rate that can occur normally when we take a breath. These experiences may cause anxiety, but for the majority of people, they are completely harmless.

You should not panic if you experience a few flutters or your heart races occasionally. But if you have questions about your heart rhythm or symptoms, check with your doctor.

Arrhythmia Types

Originating in the Atria

Sinus arrhythmia.  Cyclic changes in the heart rate during
breathing.  Common in children and often found in adults.

Sinus tachycardia.    The sinus node sends out electrical
signal faster than usual, speeding up the heart rate.

Sick sinus syndrome.    The sinus node does not fire its
signals properly, so that the heart rate slows down. 
Sometimes the rate changes back and forth between a slow
(bradycardia) and fast (tachycardia) rate.

Premature supraventricular contractions or premature atrial
contraction (PAC).  A beat occurs early in the atria,
causing the heart to beat before the next regular heartbeat.

Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), paroxysmal atrial
tachycardia (PAT).  A series of early beats in the atria
speed up the heart rate ( the number of times a heart beats
per minutes).  In paroxysmal tachycardia, repeated periods
of very fast heartbeats begin and end suddenly.

Atrial flutter.  Rapidly fired signals cause the muscles in
the atria to contract quickly, leading to a very fast,
steady heartbeat.

Atrial fibrillation.  Electrical signals in the atria are
fired in a very fast and uncontrolled manner. Electrical
signals arrive in the ventricles in a completely irregular
fashion, so the heart beat is completely irregular.

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.   Abnormal pathways between
the atria and ventricles cause the electrical signal to
arrive at the ventricles too soon and to be transmitted back
into the atria.  Very fast heart rates may develop as the
electrical signal ricochets between the atria and

Originating in the Ventricles

Premature ventricular complexes (PVC).  An electrical signal
from the ventricles causes an early heart beat that
generally goes unnoticed.  The heart then seems to pause
until the next beat of the ventricle occurs in a regular

Ventricular tachycardia.  The heart beats fast due to 
electrical signals arising from the ventricles (rather than
from the atria)

Ventricular fibrillation.  Electrical signals in the
ventricles are fired in a very fast and uncontrolled manner,
causing the heart to quiver rather than beat and pump blood.
What happens in the heart during an arrhythmia?
Describing how the heart beats normally helps to explain what happens during an arrhythmia.

The heart is a muscular pump divided into four chamber--two atria located on the top and two ventricles located on the bottom.

Normally each heartbeat starts in the right atrium. Here, a specialized group of cells called the sinus node, or natural pacemaker, sends an electrical signal. The signal spreads throughout the atria to the area between the atria called the atrioventricular (AV) node.

The AV node connects to a group of special pathways that conduct the signal to the ventricles below. As the signal travels through the heart, the heart contracts. First the atria contract, pumping blood into the ventricles. A fraction of a second later, the ventricles contract, the ventricles contract, sending blood throughout the body.

Usually the whole heart contracts between 60 and 100 times per minute. Each contraction equals one heartbeat.

An arrhythmia may occur for one of several reasons:

What is a heart block?
Heart block is condition in which the electrical signal cannot travel normally down the special pathways to the ventricles. For examples, the signal from the atria to the ventricle may be (1) delayed, but each one conducted; (2) delayed with only some getting through; or (3) completely interrupted. If there is no conduction, the beat generally originates from the ventricles and is very slow.
What are the different types of arrhythmias?
There are different types of arrhythmia's. Arrhythmias are identified by where they occur in the heart (atria or ventricles) and by what happens to the heart's rhythm when they occur.

Arrhythmia arising in the atria are called atria or supraventricular (above the ventricles) arrhythmias. Ventricular arrhythmias begin in the ventricles. In general, ventricular arrhythmias caused by heart disease are the most serious.

How does the doctor know that I have arrhythmia?
Sometimes an arrhythmia can be detected by listening to the heart with a stethoscope. However, the electrocardiogram is the most precise method for diagnosing the arrhythmia.

An arrhythmia may not occur at the time of the exam even though symptoms are present at other times. In such cases, tests will be done if necessary to find out whether an arrhythmia is causing the symptoms.

What tests can be done?
First the doctor will take a medical history and do a thorough physical exam. Then one or more tests may be used to check for an arrhythmia and to decide whether it is caused by heart disease.

Tests for Detecting Arrhythmias

How are arrhythmias treated?
Many arrhythmias require no treatment whatsoever.

Serious arrhythmias are treated in several ways depending on what is causing the arrhythmia. Sometimes the heart disease is treated using one or more of the following treatments.


There are several kinds of drugs used to treat arrhythmias. One or more drugs may be used.

Drugs are carefully chosen because they can cause side effects. In some cases, they cause arrhythmias or make arrhythmias worse. For this reason, the benefits of the drug are carefully weighed against any risks associated with taking it. It is important not to change the dose or type of your medication unless you check with your doctor first.

If you are taking drugs for an arrhythmia, one of the following , one of the following tests will probably be used to see whether treatment is working: a 24-hour electrocardiogram (ECG) while you are on drug therapy, an exercise ECG, or a special technique to see how easily the arrhythmia drugs may also be checked.


To quickly restore a heart to its normal rhythm, the doctor may apply an electrical shock to the chest wall. Called cardioversion, this treatment is most used in emergency situations. After cardioversion, drugs are usually prescribed to prevent the arrhythmia from recurring.

Automatic implantable defibrillators

These devices are used to correct serious ventricular arrhythmia that can lead to sudden death. The defibrillator is surgically placed inside the patient's chest. There, it monitors the heart's rhythm and quickly identifies serious arrhythmia. With an electrical shock, it immediately disrupts a deadly arrhythmia.

Artificial pacemaker

An artificial pacemaker can take charge of sending electrical signals to make the heart beat if the heart's natural pacemaker is not working properly or its electrical pathway is blocked. During a simple operation, this electrical device is placed under the skin. A lead extends from the device to the right side of the heart, where it is permanently anchored.


When an arrhythmia cannot be controlled by other treatment, doctors may perform surgery. After locating the heart tissue that is causing the arrhythmia, the tissue is altered or removed so that it will not produce the arrhythmia.

How can arrhythmias be prevented?
If heart disease ids not causing the arrhythmia, the doctor may suggest that you avoid what is causing it. For example, if caffeine or alcohol is the cause, the doctor may ask you not to drink coffee, tea, colas, or alcoholic beverages.
Is research on arrhythmias being done?
The National Heart, Lung , and Blood Institute (NHLBI) supports basic research on normal and abnormal electrical activity in the heart to understand hoe arrhythmias develop. Clinical studies with patients aim to improve the diagnosis and management of different arrhythmias. These studies will someday lead to better diagnostic and treatment strategies.
Where can I find publication about heart disease?
To obtain publications about heart disease, you may want to contact your:
local American Heart Association chapter
local or state health department

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute also has publications about heart disease. For more information, contact:

NHLBI Communications and Public Information Branch, Building 31, Room 4A21, Bethesda, Maryland 20892.

NIH Publication No. 91-2264
April 1991

Public Health Service
National Institutes of Health
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute