Energy — your muscles get it from the food you consume. They need it to do mechanical work, such as flexing, contracting and moving. But surprisingly, your most powerful muscle, your heart, is able to produce quite a different kind of power.
"One of the amazing things about the heart is that it has the ability to generate its own electricity, which causes it to beat," says Christopher Madias, MD, an electrophysiologist at Rush University Medical Center.
Electrophysiologists specialize in the study of the heart's electrical system — the assembly of cells within the heart muscle that generates and distributes the electrical energy responsible for regulating the pumping action of the heart.
That pumping action provides your body with blood, which contains the nutrients your muscles need for fuel. So the electrical system not only keeps the heart going — it sparks the entire energy supply necessary for your body's functioning.
Flipping the switch
The electrical process begins in the sinus node, located in the upper right chamber of the heart, or the right atrium.
"The sinus node cells are the intrinsic pacemakers of the heart," Madias says. These cells contain electrically charged atoms that generate electrical impulses.
These impulses are sent through the heart via a series of cells similar to electrical wires. As the energy passes through these pathways, it causes the heart muscle to contract, or pump.
As long as the electrical charge continues flowing properly, your heart's pacemaker has the energy it needs to maintain the correct pumping rhythm. However, like with any electrical device, things can go wrong with this system.
The electrical impulse may move too quickly or too slowly through the heart. Or it might travel along the wrong pathways.
This results in heartbeats that are too fast or too slow. These irregular heart rhythms are known as arrhythmias. Some arrhythmias are linked to congenital problems, such as extra pathways in the heart. Others occur when the heart sustains damage from a heart attack or other cardiac condition.
While many arrhythmias are harmless, some can be life-threatening. Your doctor can tell you which is which by determining the underlying cause of the arrhythmia and whether it interferes with your heart's ability to pump blood.
If you do need treatment, several types are available, depending on the kind of arrhythmia you have, the severity of your symptoms and whether you have any other conditions that could affect your treatment. For instance, if you have a slow heart rhythm, your doctor may prescribe medication or recommend a pacemaker — an implantable device that regulates heart rhythm. If you have a fast heart rhythm, a cardiologist could implant a device called a defibrillator or an electrophysiologist could perform a procedure known as ablation.
During ablation, the electrophysiologist threads a catheter through a vein to the heart. Energy sent through the catheter eliminates the excess tissues and pathways in the heart that are moving the electrical energy in the wrong direction or at the wrong speed. For 90 to 98 percent of patients, this procedure restores the normal energy flow through the heart. "The great thing about ablation is it truly offers a cure," Madias says.
Keeping the beat
No matter which arrhythmia treatment you and your doctor choose, the goal of each is to restore the normal energy flow in your heart so it can function at just the right pace.
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