Arrhythmia is an uncontrolled, disordered or irregular heartbeat. It may be faster or slower than usual.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is arrhythmia?

Arrhythmia is when your heart beats in a disordered way. Instead of the steady rhythm, it may beat faster, slower or miss beats. You may also have palpitations, which is when you can feel your heart beating loudly in your chest.

These are often prolonged and accompanied by other symptoms, like breathlessness, making it difficult to get on with everyday activities.

The most common reason for arrhythmia is that your heart’s internal pacemaker, which sends electrical signals to make your heart beat, isn’t working normally.

There are different types of arrhythmia. The most common is atrial fibrillation, an irregular and fast heart rhythm. It’s often a sign of an underlying problem such as coronary heart disease.

Other abnormal heart rhythms include:

  • Atrial flutter – a very fast, irregular heartbeat
  • Heart block, or bradycardias – when your heart beats very slowly
  • Tachycardias - fast heart rates

Untreated arrhythmia increases your risk of heart attacks and strokes and can impact on your everyday life.

How to tell if you have arrhythmia?

A normal resting heart rate for an adult is around 60 – 90 beats a minute but will be higher if you’re exercising or excited.

From time to time, you might notice that your heart feels as though it’s beating quickly, slowly or loudly. It might also miss a beat, called an ectopic beat. This is quite normal, there’s no reason to worry.

However, you should see a doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for arrhythmia

If your doctor suspects arrhythmia they’ll arrange these tests:

  • An ECG (electrocardiogram) - to check your heart rhythm
  • Ambulatory ECG – if they want to check your heart rhythm over a 24-hour period

They’ll also check for other related conditions, such as:

As well as other factors which could increase your risk of having a stroke.

Your doctor may ask about any family history of heart problems, as sometimes abnormal heart rhythms are inherited.

They’ll refer you to a cardiologist (a doctor specialising in heart and circulation) if they suspect another underlying cause, such as valve disease or coronary heart disease. These can be detected with other tests including:

  • A chest X-ray
  • Echocardiogram
  • A cardiac CT Scan
  • A cardiac MRI Scan

Causes of arrhythmia

There are many causes of atrial fibrillation, including:

Common treatments for arrhythmia

Your doctor will probably prescribe these medications:

  • Beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers to control your heart rate
  • Anti-coagulants to prevent blood clots and reduce risk of a stroke or heart attack

They’ll also advise you about lifestyle changes you can make, such as:

  • Reducing alcohol
  • Losing weight

If you’re referred to a cardiologist, they may offer these procedures:

  • Cardioversion – uses electrical signals on your chest to correct your heart rhythm
  • Catheter ablation – a thin wire is passed into the heart to pinpoint and neutralise the area causing the faulty heartbeat

Or surgeries to implant one of these small electrical devices to control your heartbeat:

  • Implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD)
  • Pacemaker