An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm or heartbeat. It may feel like a fluttering or racing of the heart.

There are two basic types of arrhythmias:

  • Bradycardia — the heartbeat is too slow, resulting in a heart rate of less than 60 beats per minute
  • Tachycardia — the heartbeat is too fast, resulting in a heart rate greater than 100 beats per minute
Atrial fibrillation, sometimes called afib, is the most common type of arrhythmia. It is an irregular heartbeat that sometimes feels like quivering or fluttering in the chest.

Some arrhythmias are harmless and may have no noticeable symptoms.

Others can be serious or life-threatening. In some instances, abnormal or irregular heart rhythms can cause the heart to stop beating. This is called cardiac arrest.

Causes and Risk Factors of Arrhythmias

Arrhythmias happen when the electrical signals that control your heartbeat don't work properly.

This can happen if the specialized heart cells that send the electrical signals are damaged or if the electrical signals don't travel properly through the heart.

A normal heartbeat can also be disrupted if the heart produces too many electrical signals.

Sometimes the cause of an arrhythmia is unknown.

Arrhythmias are common in older adults, who are more likely to have heart disease, high blood pressure, and other health conditions that can cause arrhythmias.

Some medications can also cause arrhythmias as a side effect, including tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), antihistamines, and beta-blockers.

Additionally, illegal drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and stimulants including caffeine and nicotine can cause arrhythmias.

Common risk factors for arrhythmias include:

  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure or cardiomyopathy
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Congenital (present at birth) heart defects
  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep apnea
  • Smoking
  • Thyroid problems
  • Extreme emotional stress or anger

Duration of Arrhythmia

The duration of arrhythmia depends on the cause. For example, when an arrhythmia is caused by a treatable condition, like an overactive thyroid, the irregular heartbeat may go away when the thyroid problem is treated.

Arrhythmias caused by progressive or permanent damage to the heart, however, tend to be long-term issues and may need to be managed with medications or treated with surgery.

Additionally, some arrhythmias can be treated with simple home exercises called vagal maneuvers to help control heart rate.

Some vagal maneuvers include:

  • Gagging or coughing
  • Holding your breath and bearing down
  • Putting your fingers on your eyelids and pressing down gently
  • Dunking your face in ice water

Vagal maneuvers aren't right for everyone, and they work only for certain types of arrhythmias.

Talk with your doctor before trying any of these exercises.

Prevention of Arrhythmia

Not all cardiac arrhythmias can be prevented. Still, there are steps you can take to reduce risk factors.

You can reduce your risk of an arrhythmia caused by coronary artery disease by:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and avoiding saturated and trans fats
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Controlling high blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Quitting smoking
To minimize the chance of arrhythmias caused by drug interactions, be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the various medications you are taking. Reducing your dosage or switching to another medication may be needed to eliminate the arrhythmia.

Research and Statistics: How Many People Have Arrhythmia?

Atrial fibrillation, the most common form of arrhythmia, affects at least 2.7 million people in the United States, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
In 2018, afib was reported as the underlying cause of death in 25,845 death certificates and mentioned in a total of 175,326. By 2030, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that an estimated 12.1 million Americans will have afib.
Looking at all arrhythmias, a 2018 study of more than 500,000 adults in the United Kingdom found that 2.35 percent had a heart rhythm abnormality. The prevalence increased with age, with nearly 5 percent of those ages 65 to 73 affected. Atrial fibrillation and bradyarrhythmias were more common than supraventricular and ventricular arrhythmias.

Related Conditions and Causes of Arrhythmia

Certain conditions make arrhythmias more likely, including hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid, and sleep apnea.

Hyperthyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland produces too much of a hormone called thyroxine. This can accelerate your metabolism and lead to unintentional weight loss. It can also affect your heart, causing rapid or irregular heartbeats. Hyperthyroidism can be treated with medications or surgery.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. Loud snoring, gasping for air when you sleep, and excessive daytime sleepiness are all signs of sleep apnea. The condition increases the risk of heart problems, including heart attack, stroke, and arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation. Sleep apnea can be treated with lifestyle changes, such as weight management and smoking cessation, or with certain devices, like the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.

Resources We Love

Favorite Organizations for Essential Information About Arrhythmia

American Heart Association (AHA)

The AHA is the nation’s leading organization for heart health and heart-related disorders. Learn about symptoms, diagnosis, and monitoring of arrhythmia, as well as tips for prevention and treatment of a heart rhythm disorder. is a subsite of the Heart Rhythm Society, an international non-profit organization representing medical and science professionals from more than 70 countries who specialize in cardiac rhythm disorders. Get the facts on arrhythmias and search the organization’s database for a certified heart specialist near you.


CardioSmart is a patient engagement program from the American College of Cardiology (ACC) that provides information and resources on heart conditions. The ACC is committed to empowering patients to make better informed decisions about their health and has created digital “decision aids” to help those living with heart conditions like Afib navigate different treatment options.

Favorite Arrhythmia Support Group

My Afib Experience

Through this support network from the AHA, you can join a community of people with atrial fibrillation. Share your experiences and connect with others who are dealing with the same struggles of living with an arrhythmia.

Favorite Resource to Become an Advocate

Arrhythmia Alliance

Arrhythmia Alliance is a coalition of charities, patient groups, caregivers, and medical professionals with the mission to raise awareness and advance treatment and quality of life for people living with cardiac arrhythmias. Check out their website for opportunities to volunteer and participate in World Heart Rhythm Week, an annual awareness week that focuses on detecting arrhythmias through local events and social media campaigns.

Additional reporting by Lindsey Konkel.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

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  • Pacemaker. American Heart Association. September 30, 2016.
  • Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). American Heart Association. September 30, 2016.
  • Atrial Fibrillation. American Heart Association.
  • Atrial Fibrillation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 8, 2020.
  • Shaan K, Choi S, Weng L, et al. Frequency of Cardiac Rhythm Abnormalities in a Half Million Adults. Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology. June 28, 2018.
  • Rane S, Patton K. Impact of Sex and Ethnicity on Arrhythmic Risk. Current Cardiology Reports. July 2015.
  • Chen M, Parikh N, Merkler A, et al. Risk of Atrial Fibrillation in Black Versus White Medicare Beneficiaries With Implanted Cardiac Devices. Journal of the American Heart Association. February 11, 2019.
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  • Sleep Apnea: Diagnosis and Treatment. Mayo Clinic. July 28, 2020.


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