A patient with arrhythmias may experience a number of symptoms, including an irregular heartbeat, an occasional forceful or rapid beat, a feeling of lightheadedness or actual fainting. Pacemakers represent one extreme end of a whole spectrum of treatments for arrhythmias. Typically, these can include anything from simple reassurance and suggestions for lifestyle modifications (see box, p 4) to drugs and various implantable devices, such as pacemakers and defibrillators.
Treatment options should be based on what causes the arrhythmia in the first place – for instance:
* Stimulants, such as caffeine, tobacco and alcohol, can interfere with the coordinated beating of the heart muscle, often causing extra beats
* Recreational drugs, like cocaine, which can make the heartbeat fatally fast in some instances
* An overactive thyroid gland, which can cause certain rhythm disturbances
* Certain prescribed and over-the-counter medications
* An acute heart attack, which is also a common cause of fatal arrhythmias. Indeed, it is not entirely clear whether arrhythmias are the risk factor for heart failure or whether heart failure can lead to fatal arrhythmias.