Each year, millions of people experience irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias. In fact, a study found that one in four adult Americans over the age of 40 could develop an irregular heartbeat. This is especially true for people with coronary heart disease or for those under constant stress.
Most cases of a fluttering feeling in the chest are harmless, but some cardiac arrhythmias are extremely dangerous and require immediate treatment. It’s important to be aware of the risk factors for an irregular heartbeat and the natural, non-invasive ways in which you can treat arrhythmias.
What Is an Irregular Heartbeat?
An irregular heartbeat can mean that the heart beats too fast, too slow or with an irregular rhythm. Premature or extra beats are the most common type of arrhythmia. This usually feels like a fluttering in the chest or a feeling of a skipped heartbeat.
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of heart arrhythmia — this occurs when the normal beating in the upper chambers of the heart is irregular, and blood doesn’t flow as well as it should from the atria (upper chambers) to the lower chambers of the heart.
When a heartbeat is too fast, this is called tachycardia. A heartbeat that’s too slow is called bradycardia. When the heart beats, an electrical signal spreads from the top of the heart to the bottom, causing it to contract and pump blood. A problem with this process, such as it being delayed or blocked as it travels down into the lower branches of the heart, can cause an irregular heartbeat. This can happen if the special nerve cells that produce the electrical signals don’t work properly.
According to the American Heart Association, irregular heartbeats can produce a broad range of symptoms, from barely perceptible to cardiovascular collapse and death. A single, premature beat may be felt as a palpitation or skipped beat. Premature beats that occur often or in rapid succession may feel like a fluttering sensation in the chest or neck.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 12.1 million people in the U.S. will have AFib in 2030. People of European descent are more likely to have AFib than African Americans. AFib is more common among women than men, in part because women live longer.
Random moments of irregular heartbeat are typically harmless, but when arrhythmias last long enough to affect how well the heart works, more serious symptoms may develop, including:
- fainting or nearly fainting
- rapid heartbeat or pounding
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- collapse and cardiac arrest (in extreme cases)
During an arrhythmia, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body, which can damage the brain, heart and other organs.
Causes and Risk Factors
A 2012 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology indicates that constituents of cigarette smoking, such as carbon monoxide and oxidative stress, are likely to contribute to the generation of arrhythmias. Cigarette smoking may also induce coronary artery disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which may cause irregular heartbeat.
Research shows that there’s a complex relationship between alcohol consumption and arrhythmias. Several lines of evidence suggest that heavy drinking increases the risk of sudden cardiac death with fatal arrhythmia as the most likely mechanism.
According to a 2007 study published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation, almost all illicit drugs may cause, through a direct or indirect arrhythmogenic effect, a wide range of cardiac arrhythmias that can even be lethal. This includes cocaine, amphetamines, heroin and the misuse of prescription medications.
Emotional stress or anger can make the heart work harder, raise blood pressure and increase cortisol levels. Research shows that psychological stress can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and cause irregular heartbeat. In fact, data suggests that about 20 percent to 40 percent of sudden cardiac deaths are precipitated by acute emotional stressors, and cardiac dysfunction that’s triggered by emotional stress can increase the risk of arrhythmias.
Irregular heartbeats affect millions of people, and more serious arrhythmias typically affect people older than 60. This is because older adults are more likely to have heart conditions and other health problems that lead to an irregular heartbeat.
According to research conducted at the University of Hull in the U.K., age positively correlates with an increasing risk of cardiac problems, including arrhythmias — not only the prevalence, but also the severity of arrhythmias escalate with age. The reasons for this are multifactorial, but aspects of cardiac calcium regulation within the heart likely play a key role in initiating and perpetuating these life-threatening events.
Conditions that damage the heart can impair the heart’s electrical system and cause irregular heartbeat. Examples of such conditions include:
- heart attack
- heart failure
- congenital heart defects
- high blood pressure
- infections that damage the heart muscle or the sac around the heart
- diabetes (which increases the risk of high blood pressure and coronary heart disease)
- sleep apnea (which can cause stress on the heart)
- An overactive or underactive thyroid gland
If you experience dizziness, chest pain or fainting due to an arrhythmia, you may need to be treated. In order to diagnose an irregular heartbeat, a doctor listens to the rate and rhythm of your heart and for a heart murmur, an extra or unusual sound during the heartbeat.
Your doctor may also check for swelling in your legs and feet because this can be a sign of heart failure. The most common test used to diagnose arrhythmias is an electrocardiogram (EKG). An EKG detects and records the heart’s electrical activity. It can measure the strength and timing of electrical signals as they pass through each part of the heart.
Once you’re diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia, your doctor will guide you to choose an appropriate treatment plan. Conventional treatments for an irregular heartbeat may include medications, medical procedures and surgery.
Antiarrhythmics are used to slow down a heart that’s beating too fast or change abnormal heart rhythm to a normal, steady rhythm. Beta blockers are used to slow down a heartbeat by reducing its workload. Calcium channel blockers are also used to reduce heart rates.
These medications come with a list of side effects, including worsening arrhythmias, allergic reactions, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and fainting. These medications only help control an irregular heartbeat instead of curing the issue, so they may have to be taken for life. To avoid this, sometimes procedures are done to permanently treat or monitor irregular heartbeats.
Irregular heartbeat can be treated with a pacemaker, a device that’s placed under the skin of the chest or abdomen to help control an abnormal heart rhythm. When the pacemaker detects an abnormal heart rhythm, it sends an electrical pulse to make the heart beat at a normal rate again. Doctors recommend a pacemaker when the heartbeat is slower than normal. This can happen as a result of aging, damage to the heart from a heart attack or other heart conditions that affect its electrical activity.
Defibrillation or cardioversion is a type of treatment that uses a jolt of electricity to fix an irregular heartbeat. Similar to the pacemaker, an implantable cardioverter defibrillator is a device that’s placed under the skin and uses electrical pulses to help control life-threatening arrhythmias.
Research shows implantable defibrillators are highly effective in terminating malignant ventricular arrhythmias (serious arrhythmias that originate in the lower chambers of the heart) in patients who are thought to be at significant risk for sudden death.
Another procedure that may be used when medicine doesn’t treat an irregular heartbeat is catheter ablation, which is when a thin, flexible tube is put into a blood vessel in the arm, groin or neck, and then guided to the heart. Energy that’s sent through the tube in the heart finds and destroys small areas of heart tissue that are causing rapid or irregular heartbeats. This procedure is usually used to treat some types of rapid heartbeat, such as supraventricular tachyarrhythmias, which are rapid, uncoordinated heartbeats that start in the upper chambers or middle region of the heart.
Surgery may be done to improve blood flow to the heart muscle. Surgery is often the choice when it’s already being done for another reason, such as repairing the heart valve.
One type of surgery done on patients with life-threatening arrhythmias is called the maze surgery or procedure. Maze surgery cures a fast, irregular heartbeat by creating a maze of new electrical pathways that lets electrical impulses travel more easily through the heart. This is a serious surgery that requires a hospital stay of five to seven days or longer, including at least one to two days in the intensive care unit. Recovery takes about two months, and in that time, you may feel some pain where the chest was opened and weaker than usual.
1. Vagal Maneuvers
Vagal maneuvers are used to slow down a rapid heartbeat by stimulating the receptors in the internal carotid arteries. This stimulation causes a reflex stimulation of the vagus nerve, which results in the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that can slow down the electrical impulses that lead to a rapid heartbeat.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, extending from the brainstem to the abdomen. The vagus forms part of the involuntary nervous system, and it commands unconscious body procedures, such as keeping the heart rate constant. Studies show that vagal maneuvers are simple, non-invasive methods of stopping irregular heartbeat by stimulating the vagus nerve.
Vagal maneuvers are natural treatments that can be done before turning to medications or other more invasive procedures. There are different types of maneuvers that you can try, and remember that not one maneuver works for everyone.
- Coughing: A forceful and sustained cough can stimulate the vagus nerve. One cough alone will not be effective.
- Bearing down: Bear down as if you are having a bowel movement to stimulate the vagus nerve and correct an irregular heartbeat. You can also try blowing through a straw.
- Blowing through a syringe: This is called valsalva maneuver, and it involves blowing into a syringe while lying down, face up, for 15 seconds. This generates increased pressure within the chest cavity and triggers a slowing of the heart rate that may stop the abnormal rhythm.
- Cold Stimulus to the face: Emerge the face in cold water or place an ice pack on the face for about 10 seconds. This creates a physiological response similar to what happens when you jump into cold water.
- Gagging: Gagging stimulates the vagus nerve. Use a tongue depressor and quickly insert it into the mouth, touching the back of the throat.
- Carotid massage: Carotid arteries are the major blood vessels in the neck that supply blood to the brain, neck and face. A carotid massage is done by applying pressure underneath the angle of the jaw in a gentle, circular motion for about 10 seconds. This technique is not recommended for patients with a history of smoking or those who have carotid artery stenosis, which is a narrowing of the carotid arteries.
2. Eat a Healthy Diet
Because many people with irregular heartbeats have underlying health issues like heart disease, it’s important that they stick to healthy diets. Eating anti-inflammatory foods is important because they contain antioxidants and phytonutrients that lower the immune system’s overactive response. Healthy fats and animal proteins help to balance cholesterol levels and raise HDL cholesterol. To improve the health of your heart, eat the following foods:
- fiber-rich, high-antioxidant foods
- vegetables of all kinds
- fruits of all kinds
- herbs and spices (especially turmeric and raw garlic)
- legumes and beans
- healthy fats (found in nuts, seeds, avocados, wild-caught fish, coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil)
- raw, unpasteurized dairy
3. Engage in Physical Activity
The beneficial effects of regular physical activity on cardiovascular health are well-established and, evidence proves that the benefits of exercise include improved blood pressure, lipid profile and overall mortality. People should engage in daily physical activity in order to maintain a healthy heart.
For those who already experience cardiac arrhythmia, create an exercise plan with the help of your healthcare provider to be sure that you aren’t overexerting yourself.
4. Quit Smoking
Research shows that tobacco smoke is the single most important modifiable risk factor for coronary diseases and the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.. It plays a role in the development of cardiac arrhythmia and should be avoided, especially by people with history of irregular heartbeat.
5. Maintain a Healthy Weight
A 2016 study published in the European Heart Journal found that atrial fibrillation, the most common type of arrhythmia, is commonly associated with being overweight and obese. Overweight populations have higher incidence, prevalence, severity and progression of atrial fibrillation compared with their normal weight counterparts. Data shows that stable weight loss decreases arrhythmia and recurrence following treatment.
6. Reduce Stress
Stress and negative emotions are important risk factors for irregular heartbeat. To reduce the risk of arrhythmia, stress management has a very important role.
Research conducted at John Hopkins University School of Medicine and Division of Cardiology found that episodes of acute emotional stress can have significant adverse effects on the heart and patients must manage emotional stress as part of their treatment. Relieve stress with relaxation therapy, meditation, yoga and prayer.
Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat multiple medical conditions, and it’s documented to improve many aspects of cardiovascular functioning.
A 2008 review conducted at the University of Minnesota indicates that of the eight studies reviewed, 87 percent to 100 percent of participants using acupuncture converted to normal heart rhythm. Researchers determined that acupuncture seems to be effective in treating several cardiac arrhythmias.
Cardiac arrhythmias can be serious, life-threatening conditions if they aren’t treated properly. Although not all irregular heartbeats are major health concerns, if you experience a constant fluttering feeling in the chest or you feel like your heart is beating too fast or too slow, it’s best to see your healthcare professional for an exam.
- An irregular heartbeat can mean that the heart beats too fast, too slow or with an irregular rhythm.
- Irregular heartbeat symptoms include lightheadedness, fatigue, loss of breath, dizziness, anxiety, sweating and fainting.
- Risk factors for developing cardiac arrhythmia include smoking, drinking alcohol, stress, obesity and drug use.
- Most irregular heartbeats are harmless, but for those with severe cardiac arrhythmias, conventional treatments may include medication, procedures, such as implanting a pacemaker, and surgery.
- Natural, non-invasive treatments for irregular heartbeat include vagal maneuvers, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, reducing stress, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, engaging in physical activity, and doing acupuncture.