Inconsistent heart rate is a condition that occurs when you experience dropped or additional beats in your normal heart rate. The causes of this type of inconsistency belong to a class of ailments called arrhythmias. While some occurrences of inconsistent heart rate require no treatment, others need treatment to avoid potentially serious health consequences.
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Heart Rate Basics
Your heart beats as a result of electrical impulses from a cluster of tissue in the upper heart called the sinoatrial node, according to the American Heart Association. Normally signals from this node expand outward and downward to your lower heart, where they trigger contractions in the powerful pumping chambers called the ventricles. For your heart to beat properly, the impulses inside it must occur in a strict sequence and flow through specific cardiac tissues. Inconsistent heart rates and other arrhythmias occur when the normal firing sequence inside your heart is altered in some way.
You can experience either skipped or extra heartbeats if you have a condition called an ectopic heartbeat, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus. Typically heartbeats of this type produce relatively small changes in your overall heart function and do not pose any serious health risks. Potential symptoms of an ectopic heartbeat include infrequently forceful beating of your heart, a noticeable skipping or pause in your heartbeat and an unusually distinct overall heartbeat. In some cases, you might have an ectopic heartbeat without any clear symptoms. Adults commonly experience occasional ectopic beats.
A more serious form of inconsistent heartbeat is called atrial fibrillation. In this condition, the upper chambers of your heart—called atria—beat irregularly and at an unusually rapid tempo. In some cases you can live safely with an atrial fibrillation. However, in other cases the condition can trigger much more significant or life-threatening problems, such as heart failure or stroke. Potential symptoms of atrial fibrillation include a noticeably rapid or irregular heartbeat, dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain, fainting and a rapid thumping sensation in your chest.
If you develop severe or frequent ectopic heartbeats, your doctor might need to uncover its underlying causes and formulate an appropriate treatment strategy. In relatively rare cases, an uncontrolled ectopic heartbeat can point toward the onset of more serious forms of arrhythmia. According to the American Heart Association, potential treatments for atrial fibrillation can include surgery, implantation of a pacemaker, corrective electrical shock and medications such as beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, amiodarone and digitalis.
You can also develop arrhythmias that don’t involve inconsistencies in your heart rate, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Paroxysmal atrial tachycardia—which involves a rapid but regular heartbeat—is a form of this arrhythmia that can occur in your upper heart. It typically produces unpleasant sensations but no significant health risks. You can also develop consistent arrhythmias in your lower heart called ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia. These conditions pose immediate, severe health risks and require rapid treatment.