To diagnose a heart arrhythmia, your doctor will review your symptoms and your medical history and conduct a physical examination. Your doctor may ask about — or test for — conditions that may trigger your arrhythmias, such as heart disease or a problem with your thyroid gland. Your doctor may also perform heart-monitoring tests specific to arrhythmias.
These may include:
Electrocardiogram (ECG). During an ECG, sensors (electrodes) that can detect the electrical activity of your heart are attached to your chest and sometimes to your limbs. An ECG measures the timing and duration of each electrical phase in your heartbeat.
Holter monitor. This portable ECG device can be worn for a day or more to record your heart’s activity as you go about your routine.
Event recorder. For sporadic arrhythmias, you keep this portable ECG device available, attaching it to your body and pressing a button when you have symptoms. This lets your doctor check your heart rhythm at the time of your symptoms.
Echocardiogram. In this noninvasive test, a hand-held device (transducer) placed on your chest uses sound waves to produce images of your heart’s size, structure and motion.
Implantable loop recorder. If your symptoms are very infrequent, an event recorder may be implanted under your skin in the chest area to continually record your heart’s electrical activity and detect abnormal heart rhythms.
Treating fast heartbeats
For fast heartbeats (tachycardias), treatments may include one or more of the following:
Vagal maneuvers. You may be able to stop an arrhythmia that begins above the lower half of your heart (supraventricular tachycardia) by using particular maneuvers that include holding your breath and straining, dunking your face in ice water, or coughing.
These maneuvers affect the nervous system that controls your heartbeat (vagus nerves), often causing your heart rate to slow. However, vagal maneuvers don’t work for all types of arrhythmias.
Medications. For many types of tachycardia, you may be prescribed medication to control your heart rate or restore a normal heart rhythm. It’s very important to take any anti-arrhythmic medication exactly as directed by your doctor in order to minimize complications.
If you have atrial fibrillation, your doctor may prescribe blood-thinning medications to help keep dangerous blood clots from forming.
Cardioversion. If you have a certain type of arrhythmia, such as atrial fibrillation, your doctor may use cardioversion, which can be conducted as a procedure or by using medications.
In the procedure, a shock is delivered to your heart through paddles or patches on your chest. The current affects the electrical impulses in your heart and can restore a normal rhythm.
Catheter ablation. In this procedure, your doctor threads one or more catheters through your blood vessels to your heart. Electrodes at the catheter tips can use heat, extreme cold or radiofrequency energy to damage (ablate) a small spot of heart tissue and create an electrical block along the pathway that’s causing your arrhythmia.