An abnormal or irregular heartbeat is called an arrhythmia. There are many causes for arrhythmia, some of which are benign and other causes may be life-threatening.
Causes of Atrial Fibrillation or Afib
The most common arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation or Afib. Causes include myocardial ischemia or heart attack, disease of the heart valves, congenital heart abnormalities, electrolyte imbalances, thyroid disease, or excessive caffeine. Because there are so many potential causes of arrhythmia, it is important to have an evaluation by your physician to determine the seriousness of your arrhythmia.
Testing for Afib & Pinpointing a Cause
When you see your physician for an arrhythmia, they will likely perform a history and physical, order blood work, heart tests, and possibly use a heart monitor. A history and physical may be enough to provide insight into the cause of your symptoms especially if there has been an increase in caffeine consumption, medication changes, or dehydration.
If your physician is unable to determine the cause with a history and physical, other diagnostic tests may be ordered such as a cardiac echocardiogram (ECG) or cardiac MRI. Most physicians will try and capture the arrhythmia on a heart monitor. The frequency of your symptoms will determine if they order a 24-hour heart monitor or a monitor of longer duration.
Type of Afib?
Your physician may tell you that you have paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation means that the abnormal rhythm isn’t constant, but instead it may last for a few seconds to hours or even days. If your Afib lasts consistently for more than seven days, it will be categorized as persistent Afib.
Treatment Options for Afib
If Afib is the cause of your irregular heartbeat, there are many treatment options available today. If your physician determines that the cause of your Afib is a reversible cause such as caffeine, thyroid disease, electrolyte imbalance, they will attempt to correct it. Your physician may prescribe an anti-arrhythmic medication. These are medications that can convert your rhythm back to normal and suppress atrial fibrillation.
Another treatment is an electrical cardioversion. Electricity is used to interrupt the Afib in attempt to get your heart back in normal rhythm.
Many physicians today perform an ablation of the heart in an attempt to cure Afib. An ablation is a procedure where catheters are placed inside your heart to identify the tissue that is causing the atrial fibrillation. The physician will then either burn or freeze that tissue to prevent it from causing the abnormal rhythm.