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‘Off-rhythm’ heart often a warning sign

You’ve probably read somewhere or seen in the movies that “her heart skipped a beat” or “heart pounding, he crept into the room.” Did it sound romantic? Exciting?

For people suffering from heart rhythm disorders, these sensations are anything but romantic or exciting. Fluttering, skipped beats, racing heart, or palpitations are called arrhythmias, and they can be frightening or occasionally even deadly to people who experience them.

If we consider a heart attack as a plumbing problem of the arteries, an arrhythmia is best described as a malfunctioning of the heart’s electrical system. The heart muscle starts to receive mixed up messages, which causes the heart to beat too fast, too slow, or in an irregular pattern.

The average healthy heart beats at about 60 to 100 times per minute. It may go faster during exercise or a stressful event, and slower while you sleep or do relaxation exercises. Your heart normally slows down and speeds up based on your body’s needs, but at a regular rhythm.

When your heart gets off-rhythm, you might have symptoms like sensations of skipped beats, heart racing, thumping or fluttering in the chest or lower part of the throat. Some people feel light-headed or tired, or have shortness of breath or even chest pain.

It’s important to note that you could have these symptoms and not have arrhythmias. The symptoms may be from anxiety, stress, or other causes besides a problem with your heart. On the other hand, some people have arrhythmias without feeling any odd sensations in the chest, and their other symptoms may be very subtle.

Arrhythmias have a variety of causes, including infections, fevers, stress, genetics, medical conditions, drugs, alcohol, or stimulants like caffeine or tobacco. Treatment for arrhythmia depends on the cause and your particular case, and might include medication or surgery.

The most common arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, which affects about 9% of adults over 65. A-fib requires treatment and monitoring as it increases the risk of a stroke. Another common arrhythmia is premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), which is a skipped heartbeat. While this is less likely to have serious consequences, it should be checked out if the frequency or duration of these skipped beats increases. There are dozens of other specific types of arrhythmia.

If a symptom of arrhythmia happens infrequently with no other symptoms, it’s usually not serious. However, if they become more frequent, stronger, or are causing you concern, discuss with your healthcare provider. If you also have symptoms like shortness of breath, light-headedness, or chest pain, call 911 right away.

Keeping your heart as healthy as possible is important if you suffer from arrhythmias, so stick with the advice of eating well, exercising regularly, managing blood pressure, not using tobacco products, managing stress, and maintaining a healthy weight.

With luck, we’ll leave the skipped heartbeats and pounding chest to the books and movies.

Information gathered for this article came from the Centers for Disease Control and WebMD. CHQ 250 is an initiative of the Chautauqua Health Action Team (CHAT), encouraging you to take action to be one of at least 250 strokes, heart attacks, or related deaths prevented in Chautauqua County in the coming year. This column is written by CHAT members to share information to help you to do your part to live a life free of stroke or heart disease; it is not intended to replace advice provided by your healthcare team. Please direct questions or comments to: activecounty@co.chautauqua.ny.us.

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