The heart is an intricate structure consisting of valves, chambers and nodes that control the pumping of the blood, ensuring that it reaches its destination. With such a complex system, any damage to any of these components may cause changes in the rhythm of the heartbeat. However, if you do notice your heart literally skipping a beat, don’t panic. An irregular pulse may not indicate anything dangerous, but you will need to get it checked out by your doctor.
When Is Irregular Pulse Serious?
We are usually not aware of our pulse, with normal heart rate being 60-80 beats per minute, but when the rhythm does go awry, it’s easy to notice irregularities. However, some abnormal heartbeat patterns may be silent and go undetected. An irregular pulse, also known as cardiac arrhythmia, is caused by dysfunctional electrical impulses, which may result in the heart beating too slow, too quickly, or with an unusual rhythm. A one-off episode of an irregular pulse is probably not something to worry about, but if the abnormal heartbeat occurs frequently or for a longer period of time, it may be more serious and worth seeing a doctor about.
At the doctor’s, your physician will measure your pulse or use an electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG). He/she will also ask about your symptoms.
Common symptoms of cardiac arrhythmia include:
- A feeling of pounding in your chest
- The sensation of fluttering, skipping heartbeats, known as palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Tightness and pain in the chest
- Feeling weak or very tired
An irregular pulse will need to be carefully monitored as it could cause blood clots to form, leading to a possible stroke or heart attack.
Danger signs of a heart attack include:
- Uncomfortable fullness, pressure, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest
- Chest discomfort with fainting, lightheadedness, sweating, shortness of breath or nausea
- Pain spreading to the neck, shoulders, or arms
- Feeling nervous, anxious or cold
- Increased or irregular heart rate
- Pale skin
Danger signs of a stroke include:
- Trouble speaking
- Confusion or difficulty understanding other people
- Numbness or weakness in face, arm, or leg, especially on one side
- Trouble walking
- Trouble seeing with one or both eyes
- Severe headache
What Causes Irregular Pulse?
There are several causes of cardiac arrhythmias, including the following:
- High blood pressure.
- Coronary heart disease, where cholesterol or other types of deposit block the cardiac arteries
- Certain drugs, such as caffeine, beta-blockers and amphetamines
- Low levels of certain electrolytes, like potassium
- Heart muscle changes following injury, illness, or surgery
- Heart abnormalities
- Other health disorders
These risk factors may predispose someone to an irregular pulse:
- A previous heart condition
- High blood pressure
- A sedentary lifestyle lacking in exercise
- A diet rich in unhealthy foods, such as fats and cholesterol
- Other health conditions
Types of Irregular Pulse
There are many different types of irregular pulse. The heartbeat can be fast or slow, rhythmic or with no rhythm. Even irregular rhythms can have a pattern, for instance, a pattern that repeats every fourth beat. However, if the pulse beats are out of rhythm in a chaotic manner, this is known as arrhythmia.
The two most frequent types of arrhythmia are bradycardia, where the heartbeat is too slow, and tachycardia, where a high pulse rate is detected.
Bradycardia becomes more common with age, and may be associated with certain medications or electrical conduction disorders in the heart. If the pulse goes below 50 beats per minute, there may not be enough blood flowing through the body to provide oxygen to cells.
Tachycardia may be divided into two further categories, depending on the source of the high pulse rate:
- Supraventricular tachycardia is associated with the upper chambers of the heart, the atria. When the atrial muscles start quivering with rapid and chaotic electrical activity, this is termed atrial fibrillation.
- Fibrillation in the lower chambers of the heart, the ventricles, is a very dangerous condition and can lead to sudden death.
When the valve on the aorta, the main artery leaving the heart, is damaged, blood may flow back into the heart, and the blood will need to be pumped again. This causes a type of irregular pulse known as a collapsing pulse, where the heart rate rapidly increases and then collapses.
Can Irregular Pulse Be Treated?
Whether an irregular pulse can be treated depends on the cause of the arrhythmia. There are general steps that can be taken to improve cardiac health, such as stopping smoking and improving your diet. Your doctor can also prescribe medications to control your heartbeat.
If behavioral changes and pharmaceutical measures do not improve the irregular pulse, doctors may carry out certain surgical procedures that may be able to correct the problem. For example, a pacemaker may be fitted, or surgery may be performed to fix an abnormality in the heart.
Monitor Heart Rate and Make Lifestyle Changes for Heart Health
To monitor your heart, check your pulse once a month, as an irregular pulse can come and go. Heart monitoring is especially important if you are over 55, as cardiac arrhythmias become more common with age. If you have any concerns after monitoring your pulse, make sure you speak to your doctor.
Below are more tips for better heart health inlcuding dietary suggestions, etc.