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Understanding Heart Arrhythmias

They say you’re either born with rhythm or without. But drummers, bass players and jazz singers are not the only ones who depend on steady, reliable timing. Though you never set the time, your heart’s rhythm is carefully tuned like clockwork, delivering rich, oxygenated blood at the pace of your daily activity.

When your natural rhythm becomes irregular, that can affect your body in many ways. To help explain heart arrhythmias, we invited Michael Zawaneh, MD, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Banner – University Medicine Heart Institute to share his insight on the topic.

What controls the heart’s rhythm?

Your heart is a muscle. Just like any other in your body it is activated with electricity. “The cardiac electrical impulse, or heartbeat, starts from a group of highly specialized cells,” explained Dr. Zawaneh. “Known as the sinus node, this group of cells is found in the right upperchamber of the heart. A normal heart rate will commonly range between 60-100 beats per minute.”

What causes a heart arrhythmia?

The term heart arrhythmia is generally used to describe an abnormal heart rhythm – fast, slow or irregular. According to Dr. Zawaneh “an abnormal, slow rhythm can be due to dysfunction of the sinus node or other parts of the conduction system, while a fast heart rhythm often originates from an area other than the sinus node, affecting the heartbeat pace.” In addition to dysfunctions of the sinus node, arrhythmias occur mainly due to an innate abnormality in the cardiac electrical tissue. These are often related to underlying heart disease such as:

Other systemic diseases, such as lung disease or hormonal abnormalities may also cause arrhythmias. As you can see, there are many potential causes for an arrythmia. Dr. Zawaneh added, “it is common that cardiac arrhythmias do not have a clear identifiable cause.”

Is a heart arrhythmia dangerous?

The short answer is “maybe.” Dr. Zawaneh explained, “heart arrhythmias can be benign. However, they can also be a sign of significant underlying heart disease. The nature of the arrhythmia can give insight to the underlying cause.” Dr. Zawaneh also warned that some arrhythmias can be associated with stroke, loss of consciousness and even death.

You may be surprised to hear that heart arrhythmias are a common occurrence throughout life. They are more often found early in life during childhood and adolescence and are common again at 60 years and older. “Heart arrhythmias affect more than three million people in the U.S. per year,” said Dr. Zawaneh.


“Heart arrhythmias are generally not painful,” said Dr. Zawaneh. “There are a wide variety of symptoms, including palpitations, racing heartbeat, fluttering in the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest tightness and sometimes passing out. Some arrhythmias have very few symptoms, if any with certain types of arrhythmias.”

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, consult with your doctor immediately.


The approach to treatment depends largely on the nature of the arrhythmia or its original cause. Throughout your life, healthy lifestyle choices can reduce your risk. Work with your doctor to find the treatment that will work best for you. In many cases, medication can resolve the issue. Other treatments include:

  • Pacemakers – These devices are generally implanted in the chest to help control heart rhythm with electrical pulses.
  • Implantable cardioverter defibrillators – These devices restore a normal heartbeat when a life-threatening rhythm is detected.
  • Catheter ablation - This is a procedure in which a heart rhythm specialist will introduce a catheter into the heart which can perform an ablation of the small area of heart tissue which is responsible for the abnormal arrhythmia.

Find your rhythm

Heart health needs to be a priority for all humans. Banner Health specialists are here to help answer your questions and keep your heart beating in perfect time. Maintaining your regular doctor visits is key in early detection of heart arrhythmias since many people are unaware of their arrhythmias. Schedule a visit with your doctor today.

Heart Health Imaging