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How Are Arrhythmias Treated?

Common arrhythmia treatments include medicines, medical procedures, and surgery. Your doctor may recommend treatment if your arrhythmia causes serious symptoms, such as dizziness, chest pain, or fainting.

Your doctor also may recommend treatment if the arrhythmia increases your risk for problems such as heart failure, stroke, or sudden cardiac arrest.

Medicines

Medicines can slow down a heart that's beating too fast. They also can change an abnormal heart rhythm to a normal, steady rhythm. Medicines that do this are called antiarrhythmics.

Some of the medicines used to slow a fast heart rate are beta blockers (such as metoprolol and atenolol), calcium channel blockers (such as diltiazem and verapamil), and digoxin (digitalis). These medicines often are used to treat atrial fibrillation (AF).

Some of the medicines used to restore a normal heart rhythm are amiodarone, sotalol, flecainide, propafenone, dofetilide, ibutilide, quinidine, procainamide, and disopyramide. These medicines often have side effects. Some side effects can make an arrhythmia worse or even cause a different kind of arrhythmia.

Currently, no medicine can reliably speed up a slow heart rate. Abnormally slow heart rates are treated with pacemakers.

People who have AF and some other arrhythmias may be treated with blood-thinning medicines. These medicines reduce the risk of blood clots forming. Warfarin (Coumadin®), dabigatran, heparin, and aspirin are examples of blood-thinning medicines.

Medicines also can control an underlying medical condition that might be causing an arrhythmia, such as heart disease or a thyroid condition.

Medical Procedures

Some arrhythmias are treated with pacemakers. A pacemaker is a small device that's placed under the skin of your chest or abdomen to help control abnormal heart rhythms.

Pacemakers have sensors that detect the heart's electrical activity. When the device senses an abnormal heart rhythm, it sends electrical pulses to prompt the heart to beat at a normal rate.

Some arrhythmias are treated with a jolt of electricity to the heart. This type of treatment is called cardioversion or defibrillation, depending on which type of arrhythmia is being treated.

Some people who are at risk for ventricular fibrillation are treated with a device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). Like a pacemaker, an ICD is a small device that's placed under the skin in the chest. This device uses electrical pulses or shocks to help control life-threatening arrhythmias.

An ICD continuously monitors the heartbeat. If it senses a dangerous ventricular arrhythmia, it sends an electric shock to the heart to restore a normal heartbeat.

A procedure called catheter ablation is used to treat some arrhythmias if medicines don't work. During this procedure, a thin, flexible tube is put into a blood vessel in your arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck. Then, the tube is guided to your heart.

A special machine sends energy through the tube to your heart. The energy finds and destroys small areas of heart tissue where abnormal heart rhythms may start. Catheter ablation usually is done in a hospital as part of an electrophysiology study.

Your doctor may recommend transesophageal echocardiography before catheter ablation to make sure no blood clots are present in the atria (the heart's upper chambers).

Surgery

Doctors treat some arrhythmias with surgery. This may occur if surgery is already being done for another reason, such as repair of a heart valve.

One type of surgery for AF is called maze surgery. During this surgery, a surgeon makes small cuts or burns in the atria. These cuts or burns prevent the spread of disorganized electrical signals.

If coronary heart disease is the cause of your arrhythmia, your doctor may recommend coronary artery bypass grafting. This surgery improves blood flow to the heart muscle.

Other Treatments

Vagal maneuvers are another type of treatment for arrhythmia. These simple exercises sometimes can stop or slow down certain types of supraventricular arrhythmias. They do this by affecting the vagus nerve, which helps control the heart rate.

Some vagal maneuvers include:

  • Gagging
  • Holding your breath and bearing down (Valsalva maneuver)
  • Immersing your face in ice-cold water
  • Coughing
  • Putting your fingers on your eyelids and pressing down gently

Vagal maneuvers aren't an appropriate treatment for everyone. Discuss with your doctor whether vagal maneuvers are an option for you.

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Arrhythmia Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. To find clinical trials that are currently underway for Arrhythmia, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov.

 
July 01, 2011 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.

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