What’s that beat?
The normal electrical pattern of your heart is called the sinus rhythm.
According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), a normal sinus rhythm causes your heart to beat between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm) when you’re resting.
You may be aware of feeling when your heart is beating faster.
Normally, this is nothing to worry about, as your heartbeat can vary during the day depending on what you’re doing.
For example, when you’re physically active, it will be faster than when you’re resting, or it can speed up if you’re feeling stressed.
An arrhythmia is the term used to describe a change in your heart’s usual electrical rhythm.
There are different types of arrhythmias and they can affect the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat. In England, arrhythmias affect over 700,000 people. They can happen at any age and most aren’t serious.
Common types of arrhythmia include:
- Sinus tachycardia – where your heart beats regularly, but over 100 bpm.
- Sinus brachycardia – where your heartbeat is regular, but slower than 60 bpm.
- Atrial fibrillation – where your heartbeat feels uneven or faster than usual.
- Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) where your heart beats in fast, regular bursts of between 140 and 220 bpm.
‘It’s quite normal to have the occasional extra beat,’ says GP, Dr Sarah Jarvis. ‘Most people have this sort of ectopic beat at least once a day.’
‘If you feel or hear your heart beating and have other symptoms, such as dizziness, shortness of breath, feeling lightheaded or chest pain, see your GP,’ she advises. Blackouts can also be caused by abnormal heart rhythms, so do get this checked out too if it happens.
Monitoring heart murmurs
A heart murmur is an extra sound or murmur that occurs during a heartbeat. But it is very unlikely that you would hear your own heart murmur.
‘You can’t tell if you have a heart murmur unless you’re examined by a doctor and they hear it with a stethoscope,’ explains Dr Jarvis. Murmurs can be loud or soft, often sounding to a doctor like a whooshing noise.
Reassuringly, Dr Jarvis says, ‘Many heart murmurs in otherwise healthy adults with no symptoms are nothing to worry about.’ Children can have heart murmurs too, not caused by any heart problems.
Occasionally, though, an abnormal heart murmur may be caused by acquired heart valve disease. This means it’s brought on as a result of another health condition, such as an infection, disease or due to ageing.
Inheriting cardiac health
Home is where the heart is and, in the case of cardiac health, it’s important to be aware of your family’s history of heart issues.
‘Cardiomyopathy is a disease that affects the heart muscle. It can run in families, affecting one or several people,’ explained Maureen Talbot, a senior cardiac nurse from the BHF.
There are three main types of cardiomyopathy – hypertrophic, dilated and arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC). They’re all caused by a change or mutation in one or more genes. Although the latter form is rare, the other two types result in a 50 per cent chance that a child of a parent with the condition will inherit it too.
‘Although each type causes different changes to your heart, they all affect the size and shape of your heart, and the way the electrical systems make your heart beat.’
“Many cases of cardiomyopathy run in families. While it can cause symptoms, such as chest pain, breathlessness, tiredness or blackouts, it may not,” says Dr Jarvis.
However, even if you have no symptoms, it’s essential to be screened for cardiomyopathy if other members of your family are diagnosed with it. It can predispose you to abnormal heart rhythms and even sudden death if it’s not picked up and treated.
If you’re worried about your heart health, then visit your GP for a check-up. They can often reassure you that there’s nothing serious going on, but if there are any concerns, further investigations such as blood tests or an ECG can help get to the heart of it.