Ectopic Beats

Contractions of the heart that are out of the normal rhythmic pattern

  • More common in young people and elderly people
  • Smoking and consumption of alcohol and caffeine are risk factors
  • Gender and genetics are not significant factors

An ectopic beat is an isolated, extra heartbeat that rapidly follows a normal one. The interval between an ectopic beat and the next normal beat may be longer than usual, producing a transient irregularity of the heart rhythm. Most people experience ectopic beats at some time in their lives. Ectopic beats may originate either in the atria (the upper chambers of the heart) or in the ventricles (the lower chambers of the heart). Atrial ectopic beats are usually harmless. They typically occur in young people and are often associated with the use of nicotine and the consumption of caffeine and alcohol. Ventricular ectopic beats occur less frequently, usually in elderly people, and may indicate the presence of a more serious underlying disorder, such as coronary artery disease. They may also occur after a heart attack (see Myocardial infarction). Ectopic beats may be symptomless or may cause a thumping sensation in the chest as the heart briefly beats more strongly than usual.

What might be done?

Ectopic beats in young people are likely to be atrial and harmless. They may disappear if you stop smoking and reduce your intake of coffee and alcohol. If they persist, visit your doctor. Ectopic beats that are frequent or accompanied by light-headedness, shortness of breath, or chest pain, or that occur at an older age, are likely to be ventricular. They may have a serious underlying cause, requiring urgent medical attention.

Since ectopic beats are intermittent, your doctor may arrange for your heart to be monitored continuously over 24 hours or more (see Ambulatory ECG). Tests may be carried out to look for an underlying cause.

The treatment of ventricular ectopic beats depends on the underlying cause. Antiarrhythmic drugs may occasionally be prescribed. If the ectopic beats follow a heart attack, beta-blocker drugs lower the risk of cardiac arrest.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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