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Bradycardia (Slow Heart Rate) - Topic Overview

What are the symptoms?

A very slow heart rate may cause you to:

  • Feel dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Feel short of breath and find it harder to exercise.
  • Feel tired.
  • Have chest pain or a feeling that your heart is pounding or fluttering (palpitations).
  • Feel confused or have trouble concentrating.
  • Faint, if a slow heart rate causes a drop in blood pressure.

Some people don't have symptoms, or their symptoms are so mild that they think they are just part of getting older.

You can find out how fast your heart is beating by taking your pulse slideshow.gif. If your heartbeat is slow or uneven, talk to your doctor.

How is bradycardia diagnosed?

Your doctor may take your pulse to diagnose bradycardia. Your doctor might also do a physical exam, ask questions about your past health, and do an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). An EKG measures the electrical signals that control heart rhythm.

Bradycardia often comes and goes, so a standard EKG done in the doctor's office may not find it. An EKG can identify bradycardia only if you are actually having it during the test.

You may need to use a portable (ambulatory) electrocardiogram. This lightweight device is also called a Holter monitor or a cardiac event monitor. You wear the monitor for a day or more, and it records your heart rhythm while you go about your daily routine.

You may also have blood tests to find out if another problem is causing your slow heart rate.

How is it treated?

How bradycardia is treated depends on what is causing it. Treatment also depends on the symptoms. If bradycardia doesn't cause symptoms, it usually isn't treated.

  • If damage to the heart's electrical system causes your heart to beat too slowly, you will probably need to have a pacemaker. A pacemaker is a device placed under your skin that helps correct the slow heart rate. People older than 65 are most likely to have a type of bradycardia that requires a pacemaker.
  • If another medical problem, such as hypothyroidism or an electrolyte imbalance, is causing a slow heart rate, treating that problem may cure the bradycardia.
  • If a medicine is causing your heart to beat too slowly, your doctor may adjust the dose or prescribe a different medicine. If you cannot stop taking that medicine, you may need a pacemaker.

The goal of treatment is to raise your heart rate so your body gets the blood it needs. If severe bradycardia isn't treated, it can lead to serious problems. These may include fainting and injuries from fainting, as well as seizures or even death.

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