Anyone who’s ever had any kind of medical procedure done – or has just watched a medical drama on TV – knows the importance of checking your heart rate. It’s meant to beat somewhere between 70 and 75 times a minute; if it’s too fast, or too slow, or it’s not quite regular, it could mean there’s something more serious going on.

Of course, it might not. Many arrhythmias, to use the catch-all term for this kind of problem, aren’t really that noticeable. People can go a whole lifetime without knowing they have one. In other cases, it can be an early warning sign that you’re at risk of a stroke or heart failure. Sometimes, it may even be fatal. They’re definitely not something that you want to ignore.

Arrhythmias are generally caused by problems in what’s known as the electrical conduction system of the heart, but they can be categorized in a few different ways. There are tachycardias, where the heart beats too fast (more than 100 beats a minute), and bradycardias, where it’s too slow (less than 60). Then there are premature beats, when one of the heart’s chambers contracts too soon. Sometimes they’ll be classified by location, whether it’s an atrium, a ventricle or that junction between them that’s to blame.

When arrhythmias do show symptoms, they’re associated with palpitations, shortness of breath, lightheadedness and chest pain. They may cause you to pass out. Luckily, there are lots of possible treatments. You could need to take medication, or maybe you’ll need a pacemaker fitted. There’s another procedure called catheter ablation that can help in some cases. If things go very wrong, defibrillation – something else you’ve probably seen on TV – may bring a rhythm back. One of the simplest approaches is hysical relaxation techniques known as vagal maneuvers.

With so many types of arrhythmia with different underlying causes, pretty much anyone can develop one. They are, however, more common as we age, and some types can be aggravated by stress, as well as smoking, caffeine, alcohol and some medications and illegal drugs. It can be linked to dehydration or your blood sugar levels.

“Normal” heart rates vary widely depending on factors such as age and activity levels. If you are identified as having an arrhythmia, you need to try to avoid triggers and pay extra attention to taking care of your heart.

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