What is arrhythmia?
Arrhythmia (pronounced a-RITH-me-ah) is an abnormal heart rhythm.
Typically, this means a child’s heart is beating too fast or too slow for the activity they are doing. In some children, an abnormal heartbeat may have serious consequences. But in many cases, symptoms may be bothersome but not a cause for concern.
Arrhythmias are caused by a problem with the electrical system in the heart. This can lead to a heartbeat that’s too fast (tachycardia, pronounced tack-ih-CARD-ee-ah) or too slow (bradycardia, pronounced brad-ih-CARD-ee-ah).
Arrhythmia can cause these problems with your child’s heartbeat:
- Heart beats too slowly (bradycardia, pronounced brad-ih-CARD-ee-ah).
- Heart beats too quickly (tachycardia, pronounced tack-ih-CARD-ee-ah).
- Heartbeat is irregular — the speed and pattern change.
You and your child might not notice any problems with their heartbeat. Sometimes families have no idea their child has an arrhythmia until it is noticed during a routine exam.
Because the heartbeat affects blood flow, some arrhythmias can cause these signs and symptoms:
- A sense of an unusual heartbeat (palpitations)
- Feeling faint, weak, lightheaded or dizzy
- Being short of breath
- Tiring easily
- Having chest pain
- Pale or ashen skin
To diagnose this condition, your doctor will examine your child, check their heartbeat and use a stethoscope to listen to their heart. The doctor will ask for details about any symptoms your child has, their health history and your family health history.
Some kinds of arrhythmia happen only once in a while. When they are not happening, they can be difficult to detect. For this reason, arrhythmias can be hard to diagnose.
To learn about the electrical activity in your child’s heart, the doctor will use an electrocardiogram (ECG). If an abnormal heartbeat does not happen during this test, your child may be asked to wear a monitoring device at home. Depending on the nature of your child’s symptoms and your child’s age, the appropriate monitor will be selected:
- For daily symptoms, a device called a Holter monitor is typically used. This monitor can record the heart’s activity for 24 hours.
- For less frequent symptoms, another device called an event monitor can be activated by you or your child when they feel a problem with their heart rhythm.
Other common tests to evaluate arrhythmia include:
Our doctors also use electrophysiology studies, which enable them to find the cause of the arrhythmia and, in many cases, cure it.
Your child may not need any treatment for arrhythmia. Often, an abnormal heartbeat does not cause any problems. If your child does need treatment, there may be several options, depending on the kind of arrhythmia.
The need for treatment depends on many factors, including:
- The kind of arrhythmia
- The age of your child
- The duration and frequency of the episodes
- Whether your child has symptoms
Arrhythmias may be treated with 1 or more of these options, depending on the kind of arrhythmia and how serious it is:
- Observation (monitoring over time without treatment)
- Medicines that correct the heart rate or make an irregular heartbeat steady
- Transcatheter ablation: A procedure that uses a small tube (catheter) guided through the blood vessels of the leg up to the heart. The catheter is used to destroy a tiny piece of the heart tissue that is causing the arrhythmia.
- Pacemaker implantation
- Defibrillator implantation
Read more about the treatment options we offer through our Arrhythmia Program.