Irregular heartbeat a potentially life-threatening condition

Public awareness of this common heart condition still lacking

Monday, June 1 2015

It has been estimated that as many as one in four adults over the age of 40 will develop some form of irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia, yet many South Africans are not aware of this common condition which can cause a life-threatening cardiac event or stroke.

Speaking ahead of Heart Rhythm Awareness Week, 3 – 9 June 2015, Dr Anchen Laubscher, medical director at Netcare, said people of all ages can suffer from this condition which affects many people’s quality of life, but it is particularly common among older individuals. “Empowering the South African public with knowledge about irregular heartbeat can help to save lives.”

Dr Israel ‘Pro’ Obel, a cardiologist at Netcare Milpark Hospital, says that a heart rhythm disorder or cardiac arrhythmia is when the heart beats too quickly, too slowly or irregularly. This is caused by one or more faults in the electrical circuitry of the heart. Electrophysiology is the study of the electrical properties of the heart’s cells and tissues in order to diagnose and successfully treat cardiac arrhythmia.

How would you know that you suffer from cardiac arrhythmia? Dr Obel says palpitations (i.e. missed or extra heartbeats, or racing heartbeat), dizziness, fainting, as well as shortness of breath, chest discomfort and chest pains could be symptoms of a heart rhythm disorder and should be investigated by a doctor or cardiologist if they persist.

Pulse can give basic indication of heart health

The Arrhythmia Alliance, an organisation that aims to improve awareness of cardiac arrhythmia, says knowing how to check your own pulse makes it possible for you to monitor your heart beat, heart rate and heart rhythm, which can give you a basic indication of your heart health and help you establish whether you might have any heart rhythm problems.

One of the easiest places to feel your pulse is on your wrist, although other areas are also used including in the crease of the elbow, in the groin or behind the knee. It is a good idea to check your pulse at different times of the day and following different activities such as exercise. This will help you to establish what your average pulse is, what kinds of activities raise or lower your pulse rate and whether you have any irregular heartbeat patterns.

Dr Connel Barnabas, a cardiologist who practices at Netcare Umhlanga Hospital, says people should seek advice if their pulse seems to be racing for much of the time and they feel unwell, if their pulse is slow most of the time and they feel unwell, or if their pulse is irregular, even if they feel well.

 Atrial fibrillation increases risk of stroke by up to 500%

Dr Obel notes there are different types of irregular heartbeat. Atrial fibrillation, for example, is an abnormality in the heart rhythm affecting the upper chambers of the heart. It is a common heart rhythm disorder which can be severely disabling and even life threatening.

According to the Arrhythmia Alliance, atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke by up to 500%, and every 15 seconds someone suffers a stroke related to this disorder. Atrial fibrillation may have a number of causes including high blood pressure, age, excessive consumption of alcohol, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia, disease of the heart valves, heart failure or an overactive thyroid gland. However, in some cases there may be no obvious cause.

Diagnosis and specialised treatment

The early diagnosis and treatment of heart rhythm disorders can dramatically improve a person’s quality of life and even save lives. Treatment options for irregular heartbeat depend on the cause of the irregular heartbeat and how serious it is. An assessment by a specialist will determine which treatment approach is most suitable for the individual. If the problem is minor it may require little or no medical intervention while a number of specialised interventions can be considered to treat serious cases.

Dr Barnabas says there have been great advances in the treatment of irregular heartbeat over the last 20 years. The great majority of cases are successfully treated using drugs, surgery or devices such as a pacemaker.

A pacemaker, which is implanted during surgery, assists in keeping the heart pumping at a regular pace. It is generally used in cases where a patient’s heart is beating too slowly. Other treatments, such as medication or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, which is a special type of pacemaker that can deliver a life-saving shock, may be used when the heart is beating too fast and irregularly.

Know y our pulse in four steps: Click here to download doc

Jacques du Plessis, MD of Netcare’s Hospital division says Netcare Milpark, Netcare Sunninghill, Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial, Netcare Greenacres and Netcare St Augustine’s hospitals all have electrophysiology (EP) laboratories.

“At these laboratories highly advanced procedures such as cardiac ablation are performed to treat heart rhythm disorders. In this procedure a special catheter is inserted through a vein and is remotely navigated up to the heart. There it destroys blocked or damaged electrical pathways that are causing ‘short circuits’ in the heart in order to restore its normal rhythm. Energy in the form of heat (radiofrequency energy) or freezing/cold (cryoablation) is used to destroy the tissue that is responsible for the short circuits,” explains Du Plessis.


Issued by: Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare
Contact : Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Sarah Wilson or Meggan Saville
Telephone: (011) 469 3016
Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected]