What Is an Arrhythmia?
To understand a cardiac arrhythmia, we must discuss the normal heartbeat. The heart beats involuntarily – this means that we do not need to actively control our heartbeat, but rather it happens all on its own. However, just like any other muscle, it needs an impetus to fire. This comes in the form of an electrical signal. In a normal heart, this signal starts at the Sinoatrial or SA node in the right upper chamber of the heart known as the right atrium. This signal travels down through the AV node between the upper and lower chambers and when it arrives in the lower chambers (or ventricles), they contract as well. The result is a controlled, coordinated heartbeat that allows for efficient blood flow throughout the body.
An arrhythmia is a dysfunction in this rhythm. Arrhythmias can be caused by a host of conditions including genetic disorders, congenital issues, poor cardiovascular health, and even drug toxicity. These arrhythmias can affect the Atria, known as superventricular tachycardia, or the ventricles. These conditions can run the gamut from fast heartbeat to slow and mild to debilitating.
One of the most common arrhythmias in the United States and around the world is atrial fibrillation or a fib. It is estimated that upwards of 5 million people are affected by Afib in the United States alone. More so than the discomfort associated with atrial fibrillation, our biggest concern is the increased risk of stroke, increased risk of heart attack, and higher risk for long-term heart failure associated with the condition. As a result, many of the procedures that we offer are related to the reduction of this risk of stroke.
While many arrhythmias are not immediately life-threatening, there are certain conditions that can cause what we call sudden cardiac death. Ventricular tachycardia is typically what one sees on television when a person’s heart stops. It is just a matter of minutes before the patient will die if not shocked back into function using an automated external defibrillator. Ventricular fibrillation can also be life-threatening. Of course, patients who are at high risk of sudden cardiac death do have options including an implantable cardioverter defibrillator or ICD to automatically shock the heart
As you can see, arrhythmias run the gamut in both type and severity. Fortunately, the field of electrophysiology has addressed many of those concerns with modern effective, and safe treatment options.