Heart arrhythmia (also known as arrhythmia, dysrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat) is a group of conditions in which the heartbeat is irregular, too fast, or too slow. A heart rate that is too fast – above 100 beats per minute in adults – is called tachycardia and a heart rate that is too slow – below 60 beats per minute – is called bradycardia. Many types of arrhythmia have no symptoms. When symptoms are present these may include palpitations or feeling a pause between heartbeats. In more serious cases there may be lightheadedness, passing out, shortness of breath, or chest pain. While most types of arrhythmia are not serious, some predispose a person to complications such as stroke or heart failure. Others may result in cardiac arrest.
Sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS), is a term used as part of sudden unexpected death syndrome to describe sudden death due to cardiac arrest brought on by an arrhythmia in the presence or absence of any structural heart disease on autopsy. The most common cause of sudden death in the US is coronary artery disease specifically because of poor oxygenation of the heart muscle, that is myocardial ischemia or a heart attack Approximately 180,000 to 250,000 people die suddenly of this cause every year in the US. SADS may occur from other causes. There are many inherited conditions and heart diseases that can affect young people which can subsequently cause sudden death without advance symptoms.
Some arrhythmias do not cause symptoms, and are not associated with increased mortality. However, some asymptomatic arrhythmias are associated with adverse events. Examples include a higher risk of blood clotting within the heart and a higher risk of insufficient blood being transported to the heart because of weak heartbeat. Other increased risks are of embolisation and stroke, heart failure and sudden cardiac death.
Each heart beat originates as an electrical impulse from a small area of tissue in the right atrium of the heart called the sinus node or Sino-atrial node or SA node. The impulse initially causes both atria to contract, then activates the atrioventricular (or AV) node, which is normally the only electrical connection between the atria and the ventricles (main pumping chambers). The impulse then spreads through both ventricles via the Bundle of His and the Purkinje fibres causing a synchronised contraction of the heart muscle and, thus, the pulse.
A slow rhythm (less than 60 beats/min) is labelled bradycardia. This may be caused by a slowed signal from the sinus node (sinus bradycardia), by a pause in the normal activity of the sinus node (sinus arrest), or by blocking of the electrical impulse on its way from the atria to the ventricles (AV block or heart block). Heart block comes in varying degrees and severity. It may be caused by reversible poisoning of the AV node (with drugs that impair conduction) or by irreversible damage to the node. Bradycardias may also be present in the normally functioning heart of endurance athletes or other well-conditioned persons. Bradycardia may also occur in some types of seizures.
Any part of the heart that initiates an impulse without waiting for the sinoatrial node is called an ectopic focus and is, by definition, a pathological phenomenon. This may cause a single premature beat now and then, or, if the ectopic focus fires more often than the sinoatrial node, it can produce a sustained abnormal rhythm. Rhythms produced by an ectopic focus in the atria, or by the atrioventricular node, are the least dangerous dysrhythmias; but they can still produce a decrease in the heart's pumping efficiency, because the signal reaches the various parts of the heart muscle with different timing than usual and can be responsible for poorly coordinated contraction.
Every cardiac cell is able to transmit impulses of excitation in every direction but will do so only once within a short time. Normally, the action potential impulse will spread through the heart quickly enough that each cell will respond only once. However, if there is some essential heterogeneity of refractory period or if conduction is abnormally slow in some areas (for example in heart damage) so the myocardial cells are unable to activate the fast sodium channel, part of the impulse will arrive late and potentially be treated as a new impulse. Depending on the timing, this can produce a sustained abnormal circuit rhythm.