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Bradycardia (Slow Heart Rate) - Topic Overview

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.

What can you do at home for bradycardia?

Bradycardia is often the result of another heart condition, so taking steps to live a heart-healthy lifestyle will usually improve your overall health. The steps include:

  • Having a heart-healthy eating plan that includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and low-fat or nonfat dairy foods.
  • Being active on most, if not all, days of the week. Your doctor can tell you what level of exercise is safe for you.
  • Losing weight if you need to, and staying at a healthy weight.
  • Not smoking.
  • Managing other health problems, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Get emergency help if you fainted or if you have chest pains or have severe shortness of breath. Call your doctor right away if your heart rate is slower than usual, you feel like you might pass out, or you notice increased shortness of breath.

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