What is Arrhythmia? How Do You Treat It?

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The heart is the one organ that we can actually feel at work though we tend to take it for granted. At least until we feel our "ticker" beat a little too fast for no apparent reason. Perhaps you've experienced a cardiac shake or shimmy that came out of nowhere.

Sixteen years ago, internationally respected quantum chemist Henry Schaefer, Director of the Center for Computational Chemistry at the University of Georgia, started feeling those bad vibrations. They became progressively worse.

Irregular Heartbeats

He had a terrible feeling of exhaustion, "In my case, the pattern usually went something like: beat, beat, beat-beat-beat beat. So, you know, too much time between beats and too little time between beats."

Pastor and voluminous author Max Lucado, an avid runner, became suspicious when running uphill was no longer routine. Then other symptoms showed up.

He remembers being in the middle of a phone call, "My heart rate jumped up, and I just kind of measured it by my own simple means. And it was about 140. You talk about disconcerting, and distracting, hard to focus, fatigue, irregular heartbeats. I felt like I had a Morse code going on in my chest."

Cardiologist John Onufer, who practices at Sentara Heart Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, says don't panic. It's okay to be a little "offbeat."

It's OK to Be a Little 'Offbeat'

He says we can merely bend down and stand up or "cough or roll over, and we're all going to get a skipped beat. And those are for the most part benign. We don't want to make everybody a cardiac cripple over every single skipped beat."

Still, those arrhythmias can be very, very serious. Arrhythmias originating in the lower (ventricular) chambers of the heart can become deadly -- yet may give few symptoms. There are many kinds and they have to be carefully diagnosed by a cardiologist.

Arrhythmic symptoms can include dizziness, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, rapid heartbeat, heart palpitations, chest pain, blackouts, visual problems, and fainting. Some of these are obvious emergencies, but don't hesitate to seek an ER for yourself or others when things don't seem right.

For the general public, doctors suggest it's good to be aware that those cardiac disruptions can be readily initiated in a variety of ways. Some that the average person wouldn't know about are actually common substances that can bring chaos to the electrical signals stimulating the heartbeat.

Causes of Arrhythmia

Those rhythm scramblers include numerous illegal, prescription and over-the counter drugs; caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco; and car fumes and industrial air pollution.

In addition, few people realize that MSG (monosodium glutamate) and related flavor enhancers (hydrolyzed grains, autolyzed yeast, textured soy protein, and many more) can potentially cause deadly heart arrhythmias.

Dr. Russell Blaylock, a brain and nutrition expert, says there are triggers on the heart activated by these flavor enhancers. That can initiate serious cardiac electrical problems.

Blaylock gives a scenario of an athlete who eats poorly, is thus low in magnesium, takes excess calcium supplements, has canned soup laden with MSG and a diet soda with aspartame. The result could be sudden cardiac death.

Yet in most individuals, arrhythmias are nearly impossible to know the exact cause. With or without an arrhythmia, people should do the opposite of Blaylock's scenario. That can provide some protection or help keep an arrhythmia in check.

The Heart an Electrical System

To understand more, Dr. Onufer says remember the heart is partly an electrical system -- with the potential for extra sparks, bad connections, and short circuits, for instance. He explains, "Where there's one electrical pathway connecting abnormally across another area and it short circuits on our heart, on itself, and causes a real rapid, racing heartbeat."

Lucado and Schaefer are among the 2 million sufferers of the most common rhythm problem: atrial fibrillation or A Fib. Atrial fib's erratic patterns result from a variety of those electrical problems occurring in the upper chambers of the heart.

Treatments for A Fib include drugs that limit the misfiring. Another common treatment is cardiac ablation. Doctors send a wire through a blood vessel to the heart to burn out cells that are misfiring.

Possible Treatments

Schaefer first tried nutritional approaches. He used magnesium supplements -- which is again very important -- but it didn't solve his problems.

Then Schaefer went for a wide variety of drug combinations, "And the only one that ever worked was this medicine called amiodarone -- which is quite a dangerous medicine -- which destroys your body in 17 different ways. But it did work for a while, it lasted a couple of years."

In addition to drugs like the amiodarone (Cordarone), most A Fib patients take Coumadin, a drug that thins the blood. That's crucial because almost nobody dies of atrial fibrillation itself.

Schaefer explains, "You die of a stroke which the atrial fibrillation brings on. Basically if your heart's beating irregularly, the blood's not moving around in all the places, clots form, you get a stroke and you die."

Some less serious arrhythmias may only require some Coumadin (warfarin) and little, if any, other medication. But with amiodarone not working, Schaefer had to weigh the chances of stroke versus the risk of death from a heart procedure.

"In the business I'm in, university research and teaching, you know if you have a stroke, it doesn't help you. So I figured it was worth a try and in the providence of God, I'm still here," Schaefer said.

That ablation surgery worked well for Schaefer a good six months, but problems returned so he's back on a smaller and safer dose of the amiodarone.

Healthy Lifestyle

For Lucado, his surgery in late 2007 seems to have been more effective. So far, he's needed no other help but a healthy lifestyle -- which helps fight arrhythmias and more. Onufer insists, "Exercise is critical. It's easy to say just about all of us don't get enough exercise, myself included. Part of that's just how we've engineered it out of our days."

And a good diet goes hand in hand with exercise -- to get the most out of God's gift of a heart. After all, God is in charge, Lucado reminds us.

"He uses physical challenges to strengthen my character, to embolden my testimony or even awaken me to the importance of eternity," Lucado said.

Onufer, the physician who sees the wonders of the heart every day, insists that the heart is beyond our understanding.

Totheroh: Is it in a sense amazing that we don't have more problems considering how often our hearts beat and the complexity?

Onufer: It is the most fantastic -- I guess I'm a little biased, but it's a spectacular arrangement the way God gave all us mammals this system and the backups related to it. It's just spectacular.

*Original broadcast April 29, 2008.

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Gailon Totheroh

Gailon Totheroh

CBN News Science and Medical Reporter

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