Millions of people have an abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia – and many don’t even realize it.
The most common type is atrial fibrillation (AF), which causes an irregular and often unusually rapid heartbeat and greatly increases the risk of stroke.
If diagnosed, AF can be treated.
However, it is estimated that at least 270,000 people in the UK are unaware they have the condition, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF). The figure is thought to be closer to 1.5 million in the United States.
“What remains troubling is the number of people who are undiagnosed and unaware that they are living with an increased risk of stroke,” says BHF Medical Director Professor Sir Nilesh Samani .
Around three million Britons are thought to have an abnormal heartbeat or arrhythmia – and many may not even be aware of it
“Finding people with this hidden threat must remain a priority.”
Trudie Lobban, Founder of the Arrhythmia Alliance, a coalition of patients, healthcare professionals and policy makers, adds: “Heart rhythm disturbances are a leading cause of sudden cardiac death and devastating strokes. .
“And yet, too few people are aware of the rhythm of their heart.
To mark World Heart Rhythm Week, experts are stressing the importance of being aware of the warning signs of arrhythmia and getting things checked. Here’s what you need to know…
Arrhythmias can affect all age groups
However, AF is more common in older people.
As Dr Anthony Chow, Consultant Cardiologist at Wellington Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, explains: “Heart rhythm problems are a very common condition that can affect all age groups.
“But AF is more common in older people.
“It can be as common as [affecting] 10% of the population in their 70s and almost 29% in their 80s.
Whether it’s a “thumping” feeling in your chest or a feeling like your heart has skipped a beat, there are signs of arrhythmia to watch out for.
Arrhythmias can have many causes
Lobban says many conditions can cause heart rhythm problems, including thyroid disorders, infections and sleep apnea.
Triggers can also include stress, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, diet pills, and cough or cold medicine.
“But there’s usually an underlying physical reason for that,” adds Lobban.
Warning signs to watch out for
According to Dr. Chow, the main warning signs are palpitations (a throbbing or fluttering sensation in the heart/chest), dizziness and a feeling of fainting, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, and feeling tired. excessive.
These things don’t automatically mean you have a heart problem, but it’s important to get checked for any symptoms.
And Dr Chow adds: “Not everyone experiences these exact symptoms, and in some cases patients may experience no symptoms at all.”
How to measure your heart rate
There are many ways to clinically measure heart rhythms, through ECGs or monitors. You can also check your pulse yourself at home.
“The easiest way to detect an arrhythmia is to feel your pulse and therefore your heartbeat – is it irregular, too fast or too slow?” says Lobban. “Something as simple as a 30-second heartbeat check can literally save your life.”
The Heart Rhythm Alliance offers a “Know Your Pulse” guide on its website. Lobban says you should sit down five minutes early and remember that any stimulants you’ve taken, such as caffeine or nicotine, will affect the rate.
You’ll need a watch that measures seconds (remove it to test), or your phone’s timer might work. Hold your left or right hand with your palm up and your elbow slightly bent. With your other hand, place your index and middle fingers on your wrist near the base of your thumb, between the thumb bone and stringy tendon, to find your pulse.
Once you find your pulse, hold firm pressure and count the beats for 30 seconds, then multiply by two to get your heart rate in beats per minute. If your heartbeat is irregular, you should count for a minute and not multiply.
Arrhythmia can cause many serious health problems
Cardiac arrhythmia can lead to a variety of serious heart complications, including strokes, heart failure, and heart attacks, says Dr. Chow.
“Cardiac arrhythmias, especially AF, are often associated with an increased risk of blood clots, so it’s extremely important to be aware of the warning signs,” he says.
“If a blood clot breaks off, it can travel directly from the heart to the brain, which can cause a stroke.
“You should see your doctor and be referred to a heart rhythm specialist for evaluation if you have significant symptoms.”
When to consult a doctor
If you have a history of heart problems and/or are increasingly concerned about palpations, you should speak to a medical expert, advises Dr. Chow. People with a family history of arrhythmia and/or sudden cardiac death should also ensure they are examined.
“It’s not usual for us to be aware of our heartbeats, unless there’s a disturbed rhythm,” he says.
“You should talk to your doctor if your heart palpations last a long time, or don’t improve and seem to get worse.”
“Acute cases of symptoms can be a warning sign of something more serious, so it’s important to see a doctor if you’re worried. In some cases, arrhythmia can be a sign of a medical emergency such as a heart attack.
Arrhythmias can be treated in different ways. “Some people only need reassurance after diagnosis, but others may need drug treatment or the implantation of an electrical device such as a pacemaker or an ICD,” says Lobban. .
Dr. Chow says therapies such as cardioversion can be used to reset the heartbeat by sending a shock through the chest to the heart, and there are also procedures and surgeries, including catheter ablation, where threads are threaded through the blood vessels directly to the heart and heat. is used to create tiny scars in the heart to block abnormal electrical signs and restore normal heart rhythm.
Dr Chow adds: “Most people with abnormal heart rhythms can live normal lives when the condition has been properly diagnosed and managed.”