Your heart is relentless. It’s an amazing muscle that beats at least 60 times per minute, day and night, over 86,000 times per day, over 30 million times per year, for your entire lifetime.
The physiology behind the heart’s rhythm is complex, involving a nonstop series of electrical impulses that produce the beats. When that rhythm is out of sync, that’s when an electrophysiologist’s services may be necessary.
Electrophysiology is a special branch of cardiology that is concerned chiefly with the electrical signals that regulate a patient’s heartbeat. Electrophysiologists work to restore an abnormal heartbeat, back to normal after discovering it beats too fast or too slow.
An Arrhythmia Can be Deadly
The abnormal beats an electrophysiologist addresses are called arrhythmias, and they can impair the proper flow of blood to the body. In some cases, arrhythmia can be a life-threatening situation leading to cardiac arrest, stroke and the shutdown of organs.
Many people have arrhythmias that require no treatment at all – for them, it’s a fairly harmless condition. For others, it is critically important that they receive treatment to restore the heart to its proper rhythm. Failure to do so may result in serious consequences.
Among the most dangerous kinds of arrhythmias are ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation. Ventricular tachycardia is a fast heart rhythm beginning in the heart’s ventricles or lower chambers. This rapid beating doesn’t give the heart sufficient time to fill with blood and effectively pump it out. These rhythms are often associated with disease of the heart muscle, such as a heart attack. They can be life-threatening.
Another very common arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation. In atrial fibrillation, the electrical activity in the upper chambers of the heart (atria) becomes chaotic, resulting in a dangerous quivering motion of the atria instead of a normal beat and normal contraction. As a result, blood is not pumped effectively out of the atria. Some of the blood can stagnate in the upper chambers and can form a life-threatening clot that can lead to a stroke.
The causes of an abnormal heartbeat can include high blood pressure, malfunctioning heart valves, damage from a heart attack, coronary artery disease and other medical conditions.
To discover why a patient is having an abnormal heartbeat, the electrophysiologist may need to insert catheters with very fine wires inside them into the heart via a blood vessel. Electrodes in the catheter can detect the electrical signals emanating from various areas of the heart muscle to help the electrophysiologist determine what kind of arrhythmia is present, where it is coming from, and how dangerous it might be.
Once an electrophysiologist diagnoses an arrhythmia that poses a serious health risk, he or she will recommend one of several treatment options.
A number of different arrhythmia treatments exist. The most common treatment is medication. A blood thinner can help atrial fibrillation patients who face life-threatening clotting in the heart. Other medications can slow down an overly fast beat to a more normal rate. Beta blockers can help by slowing conduction of abnormal electrical signals through the heart. Other medications known as antiarrhythmics can help suppress the initiation of abnormal rhythms so that they don’t start as easily.
Another common electrophysiology treatment is catheter ablation, in which radiofrequency energy is delivered through a catheter to destroy small areas of heart tissue responsible for the abnormal rhythm.
In cases of certain dangerous arrhythmias, the electrophysiologist may recommend an implantable device such as a defibrillator or a pacemaker. A pacemaker administers low-level electrical impulses to initiate a heartbeat when the patient’s own beat is absent or too slow. A defibrillator shocks the heart with either low- or high-level pulses to terminate an abnormal rhythm that is dangerously fast.
Stay Heart Healthy
Keeping your heart firing at a normal rhythm is obviously of great importance. To give yourself an edge: Do everything you can to help your heart stay healthy, most of which is common sense. Engage in regular exercise. If you smoke, break the habit as soon as possible and avoid excessive alcohol intake.
It’s also crucial to eat a heart-healthy diet. Control the size of your portions and make sure you consume plenty of fruits and vegetables. Watch your cholesterol levels, too.
By following some simple guidelines, you can boost the odds of your heart staying healthy and in sync.
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