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Arrhythmia Alliance – Heart Rhythm Awareness Week

Heart rhythm problems are also known as arrhythmias and every year they are experienced by over 1 million people in the UK alone and they’re also one of the top 10 reasons why people go to hospital.

What is an arrhythmia?

An arrhythmia is a change to the regular beat of the heart, it may seem to miss a beat, beat irregularly or appear to beat faster or very slowly. Having a heart rhythm problem does not necessarily mean that a person has a serious heart condition, arrhyan thmias can occur at any time and without notice.

I went to a wedding in Wales 8 years ago aged 37 and on the Sunday morning lying in our hotel bedroom I was woken suddenly by a dreadful crushing feeling in my chest, heart racing, I was sweating, grey in colour and had difficulty breathing, so of course my husband thought I was having a heart attack. After being rushed to hospital by ambulance, we were soon told it wasn’t a heart attack but atrial fibrillation and arrhythmia.

What are the different types of arrhythmias?

Here are some examples:

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

Sinus tachycardia: The sinus node sends out electrical signals 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 and fast rate.

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.

What causes arrhythmias?

There may be times that there is no recognisable cause of an arrhythmia other than heart disease however in some circumstances it may be one or a combination of the following: stress, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, diet pills and sometimes cough and cold medicines.

Now in my case the doctors said it was too much stress in my life, working full time, raising a disabled child and being a military wife and from drinking to many gin & tonics at the wedding! According to the cardiologist, the consumption of too much quinine can be a contributing factor to heart arrhythmias. The years of partaking in my favourite tipple leading up to this episode and coupled with the stress, made my heart cry out for help.

Are arrhythmias serious?

Most arrhythmias can be harmless and do not require special treatments. However when an arrhythmia is associated with heart disease, it is heart disease not the arrhythmia that poses the greatest risk to the patient.

In a small number of people with serious symptoms, arrhythmias themselves can be 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 altogether.

Certain types of arrhythmia can cause sudden cardiac death, which kills 100,000 people a year in the UK. Most of these deaths could be avoided. “At least 80% of these 100,000 deaths could be avoided through better diagnosis,” says Trudie Lobban, founder of the Arrhythmia Alliance charity.

What are the symptoms of an arrhythmia?

Most people will at some time have felt their heart beat very fast, experienced a fluttering in their chest, or noticed that their heart skipped a beat. Almost everyone may have felt dizzy, faint, or out of breath or had chest pains at one time or another. One of the most common arrhythmias 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.

Happy senior man and woman couple together cycling on bicycles in a sunny green tropical park

While I was in hospital I was attached to various monitors, my heart was racing over 180 beats a minute but due to the intensity of the beat, my heart felt like a large hammer pounding on my chest wall. The pain in my chest was excruciating and I started to lose sensation in my arms and legs so I was given oxygen. There are occasions while quietly working at my desk, the rhythm of my heart changes and a sudden extra beat can be felt, like a large thump in the chest which then makes me give out a small cough.

How are arrhythmias treated?

Many arrhythmias require no treatment whatsoever however in more serious arrhythmias they can be treated in several ways for example: medication, cardioversion, pacemaker and surgery, but this is only if the arrhythmia cannot be controlled by other treatments. It is only the heart tissue causing the arrhythmia that is removed or corrected.

In hospital I was given warfarin into my stomach to thin my blood as my heart was racing so fast. There was a risk that the blood was not being circulated correctly around my body and I was at threat of a clot, this in turn could have caused a stroke.

I was then prescribed beater blockers for my arrhythmia not just to calm the heart, but on some occasions the cardiologist has seen a long term effect on the heart rhythm with it showing a more uniformed beat. After 2 years of a reducing dose, I have now been medication free for 6 years and hope to do so for my long term future.

How can arrhythmias be prevented?

If heart disease is not the main cause of your arrhythmia, there are things that you can do to try and avoid an abnormal heart beat and help you in future years.

You could try to avoid some of the following:

  • Caffeinated drinks – I now drink green tea and allow myself one coffee a day.
  • Energy drinks and a lot of fizzy drinks contain high doses of caffeine and remember, diet pills may also include caffeine and this helps to speed up your metabolism and in turn will speed up your heart.
  • Cut down on your alcohol intake and drink mixers that don’t contain quinine, this is harder than you think as quite a lot of drinks do, like tonic water and even bitter lemon.
  • Take regular exercise especially cardiovascular – go for a 20 minute walk each day, use the stairs instead of the escalator when out shopping or take up a new hobby like crown green bowling.

I know I am trying my best to ensure my heart is as healthy as it can be and yes I still have stress in my life, don’t we all, but I have had to say to myself and on many an occasion – if it doesn’t need doing today, do it tomorrow. Now this attitude didn’t come to me over night but with time and re-educating myself about my health, it is now a way of life.

I exercise regularly and yes I can get my heart rate over 150 beats a minute in the gym easily and stay at that rate but the difference is that I don’t feel it, and I know it is strong and healthy.

My left ventricle is slighter larger than the cardiologist would like to see for a woman of my age, whether it has always been like that I don’t know. What I do know though, is that having a heart problem has made me take stock of my life and now I can make sure moving into the second half of my life, I know the signs to look out for and I can do something about it.

For more details about heart rhythm problems visit the Arrhythmia Alliance website.