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Cardiac Arrhythmia

A heart arrhythmia — also called a dysrhythmia — is an abnormal heart rhythm. The heart may beat irregularly, beat too fast or beat too slowly.

Nearly everyone has felt their heart skip a beat, race or flutter inside their chest. Occasional heart palpitations are common and harmless, even though they're considered arrhythmias. They may just occur, or they may be produced by something that stimulates your heart, such as:

  • Stress
  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Appetite suppressants
  • Cold and cough medicines that contain caffeine
  • Other stimulants

If you have an otherwise normal heart, occasional heart palpitations are rarely a cause for alarm, and most don't require medical treatment. If they're bothersome, limiting or avoiding what prompted them may eliminate the problem.

However, more than 4 million — mainly older — Americans experience recurrent or symptom-producing heart arrhythmias that may require treatment. With these arrhythmias hearts may regularly beat too fast (tachycardia) or too slowly (bradycardia) because of a problem with the heart's electrical system.

Arrhythmias are usually a byproduct of damage to the heart from disease or age. People with otherwise healthy hearts can develop an arrhythmia, but it's rare.

Arrhythmias can be serious. A few may even be life-threatening because a heart that's not beating normally may not be able to pump blood efficiently.