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What is Arrhythmia and What to Do

Brooke Marsal, MS, RD
June 2, 2021

An arrhythmia is when your heart beats too fast (tachycardia), too slow (bradycardia), or irregularly. They are caused by changes in the electrical impulses that coordinate your heartbeat. While some arrhythmias aren’t noticeable or dangerous, others cause acute symptoms and require immediate care. 

What Causes Arrhythmias

Arrhythmias are caused by a disruption in the heart’s electrical impulses. These disruptions occur as a result of heart disease, scarring of the heart tissue, age, congenital conditions, or abnormalities in electrolyte levels (most notably potassium, magnesium, and calcium).

Additional risk factors include:

  • Alcohol
  • Cigarettes
  • Recreational drugs
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Certain medications including cold and cough medication, appetite suppressants, antidepressants, and beta blockers for high blood pressure 

Types of Arrhythmias

Arrhythmias are classified by both the speed and location of the irregular heart beat. An arrhythmia characterized by a rapid heartbeat is called tachycardia. An arrhythmia characterized by a slow heartbeat is called bradycardia. Please talk to your doctor if you want to learn more about your diagnosis.


Sometimes arrhythmias aren’t noticeable and other times they cause distinct, uncomfortable, and dangerous symptoms.

Benign symptoms:
  • Rapid and irregular heartbeat
  • Fluttering or thumping in the chest
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
Symptoms that warrant medical attention:
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting or near fainting
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest Pain

Are Arrhythmias Dangerous?

Although arrhythmias will resolve on their own without any intervention, other times they do require immediate attention. Ventricular fibrillation in particular will often cause you to pass out within a few minutes. 

When to Seek Medical Help

A rapid heart rate and a pounding in the chest can often be caused by exercise or high anxiety. In these situations a rapid heart rate isn’t dangerous.

You should seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms suddenly at a time when you wouldn’t expect to feel them. 

If someone near you passes out and you do not feel a pulse:

  • Call 911 or the emergency number in your area
  • If no one nearby is trained in CPR, apply hands-only CPR (chest compressions at a rate of 100 to 120 per minute until paramedics arrive)
  • If you or someone near is trained in CPR, start CPR
  • If an automated external defibrillator (AED) machine is nearby, use the machine to deliver electric shocks to restart the heart. 

How to Manage and Prevent Arrhythmias at Home 

There are many things you can do to calm the electrical pulses and to reduce the frequency of arrhythmias: 

  • Take your medications as prescribed
  • Eat a heart healthy diet
  • Be physically active
  • Deep breathing, yoga, and other stress management techniques
  • Avoid smoking
  • Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake
  • Get enough sleep


Although arrhythmias can be benign, they can also develop into something that is life threatening. This is why it’s important to work with your doctor to establish a treatment plan and to follow-through on all preventative measures. This includes taking your medication as prescribed, maintaining a heart healthy diet and lifestyle, keeping all doctors appointments, and monitoring your condition through blood tests, echocardiography, EKGs, and smartphone-based devices.

You should also know the signs and symptoms of complications including cardiac arrest and stroke. If you think you or someone else may be having a heart attack or stroke, call 911 right away.