October 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm , by Bethany Cianciolo
Everyone has memories of their first love—the moment you first made eye contact with your high-school sweetheart in the hall, or when he finally leaned in for that first kiss. Remember how it made your heart race, and it felt like you might burst from excitement?
Of course you do. But you probably haven’t given much thought to how your heartbeat actually works, or how important your heart’s powerful electrical system is to the rest of your health. After all, you don’t have to ask your heart to beat. It just does it.
Here’s how it works: Your pulse starts in a node in the right atrium of your heart, causing it to contract. Then, through a pathway of fibers that acts like a wire, the pulse spreads to the bottom chambers of your heart, which prompts the left ventricle to contract and send oxygen-rich blood throughout your body, explains cardiologist Hugh Calkins, M.D., president of the Heart Rhythm Society.
It’s normal for your heartbeat to change during exercise, as you sleep or in the presence of a special someone, of course. But there are times when a change in your heartbeat can mean something’s wrong. Last week we sat down with Dr. Calkins to get the scoop on some heart-rhythm problems you should know about.
Falling For It
If you’ve ever passed out before, you know how scary it can be. Fainting happens when your heartbeat slows down too much, making it hard for blood to reach your brain. It can be triggered by intense emotions or fear (that’s why seeing blood can make you pass out), but dehydration or getting too hot can also do it. Women are much more prone to fainting than men, and it tends to run in families. While most of the time passing out is harmless, it’s important to talk to your doctor about it because it can be a sign of other serious heart troubles, says Dr. Calkins. Plus, your doctor can give you strategies to recognize when an episode is coming on so you can try to prevent it.
All Revved Up
A super-fast heartbeat that comes on suddenly (when you’re not in a Zumba class or something) can be a heart-rhythm problem called paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia or PSVT. There are different types of PSVT, but for most people it happens because they have an extra pathway for electricity to travel between the two nodes, which allows the pulse to circle back and make the heart beat faster than normal. “It’s basically a short-circuit,” says Dr. Calkins. Almost two-thirds of people with PSVT are women, and it’s often misdiagnosed as an anxiety attack at first. Sometimes exercise or bending over triggers it, but just as often your heart starts racing for no reason at all. Unless you have another heart condition, you may not need treatment, but you should see your doctor or a cardiologist for a full checkup.
Getting Mixed Signals
Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart-rhythm disorder, and one of the most serious because it increases your risk for stroke. It’s caused by faulty signaling in the nodes in your heart, which leads to an irregular and rapid heartbeat. This makes the upper chambers of your heart quiver rapidly, which can make you feel light-headed or cause shortness of breath. Risk factors include a family history of A-fib, obesity and high blood pressure. While A-fib is more common in men, your risk increases as you age. Tell your doctor about any weird changes in your heartbeat. Symptoms can come and go, but A-fib is much easier to treat with medication if you catch it early.
Image copyright Roobcio, Shutterstock
Categories: Health, Ladies' Lounge | Tags: A fib, atrial fibrillation, Dr. Hugh Calkins, exercise, fainting, featured, heart disease, heart health, Heart Rhythm Society, High Blood Pressure, PSVT, women's heart health | 1 Comment