Arrhythmia in Children

Your child’s heartbeat maintains a regular rhythm thanks to the heart’s electrical system. Sometimes, however, the electrical signals controlling the heartbeat get delayed or blocked. This causes the rhythm or rate to change, which is an arrhythmia.

Changes to the rate or rhythm can include:

  • A faster than normal heartbeat or tachycardia
  • A slower than normal heartbeat or bradycardia
  • An irregular heartbeat

Remarkable Care for Kids

  • Nationally recognized heart specialists: Pediatric cardiologists at Rush University Children’s Hospital are leading experts in treatment of complex heart disorders. They lead the way in bringing young patients the latest treatments, including minimally invasive procedures and innovative devices.
  • Expert arrhythmia care for kids: Our dedicated Pediatric Electrophysiology Program offers specialists who conduct extensive research, including clinical trials. This allows our team to deliver new therapies and treatment options with compassionate care to our young patients.
  • Personalized attention to improvement: With monitoring of pacemakers and defibrillators done wirelessly, you can rest assured that your child’s heart is in good hands. When your child’s heartbeat changes and calls for a medication adjustment, a doctor at Rush is alerted immediately.
  • Care close to home: Pediatric cardiologists at Rush University Children’s Hospital see patients at a number of convenient locations. They are available to see patients at our Rush campus in Chicago, Rush Oak Park Hospital, Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora, and at satellite locations throughout the city and the suburbs, including Evergreen Park, Joliet, Hoffman Estates, Tinley Park and Crown Point, IN..

What is an arrhythmia?

Arrhythmias can range from harmless to more serious — and possibly even life threatening. A life-threatening heart rhythm causes the heart to have trouble pumping enough blood to the body. Reduced blood flow can damage organs such as the brain and heart.

Causes of an arrhythmia in children can include a congenital (meaning present at birth) heart defect, high fever, infections and medications.

Arrhythmia symptoms in children

Although many arrhythmias have no signs or symptoms, when they do, the most common include the following:

  • Chest pains
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skipping or pauses between beats

If your child has any of these symptoms, it may not necessarily mean it’s an arrhythmia. Your child’s pediatrician or a pediatric cardiologist at Rush can help evaluate your child’s symptoms and get to the root of the problem.

Care for arrhythmias for kids at Rush

Diagnosis

Diagnosing an arrhythmia can be difficult, particularly ones with occasional symptoms. However, your child’s  pediatrician can diagnose the condition based on information from the following:

  • A physical exam
  • Family and medical history
  • Test results and procedures 

For additional testing, your child’s pediatrician may refer you to a pediatric cardiologist or a pediatric electrophysiologist. Pediatric cardiologists diagnose and treat children with heart problems. Pediatric electrophysiologists are pediatric cardiologists who specialize in treating arrhythmias.

Testing may include the following procedures:

  • Chest X-ray: To identify an enlarged heart
  • Blood test: To check levels of substances in blood, which indicate if an arrhythmia is present
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): A painless test to record the heart’s electrical activity
  • Stress test: A test done through exercise to increase the heart rate to make problems easier to diagnose
  • Electrocardiography: A test using soundwaves to get information about your child’s heart size, shape, chambers and valve activity

Treatments for arrhythmias in kids

If your child’s arrhythmia causes serious symptoms, such as chest pains or fainting, your child’s care team with develop a personalized treatment plan, which may include the following:

Medications

Medicine helps slow a heartbeat that’s too fast or change an irregular heartbeat to a normal rhythm. These are the types of medications that may be used to treat your child’s arrhythmia:

  • Beta blockers and calcium channel blockers to slow down the heart rate
  • Antiarrhythmics to restore a steady rhythm or prevent the abnormal rhythm
  • Blood thinners (anticoagulants) to lower the risk of blood clots forming for those with atrial fibrillation.

Nonsurgical procedures

When your child’s arrhythmia is caused by a slower than normal heart rate or medications won’t work, a nonsurgical procedure may be a treatment option for your child. Nonsurgical treatments include the following:

  • Pacemaker: For older children or adolescents, a small device is placed under the skin of your child’s chest or abdomen that sends electrical pulses to prompt the heart to beat normally.
  • Implantable defibrillator: A small device similar to a pacemaker that monitors the heartbeat and sends the heart an electric shock when a life-threatening arrhythmia occurs
  • Catheter ablation: A procedure where a thin tube is inserted into a blood vessel, guided to your child’s heart and then is used to destroy small areas of heart tissue to stop abnormal rhythms where they start

Surgical procedures

Sometimes arrhythmias are treated with surgery. It may occur during another heart-related procedure, such as repair to a heart valve.

Maze surgery, for example, treats atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter. A pediatric heart surgeon makes small cuts or burns in the upper right and left chambers of the heart called atria. This procedure prevents disorganized electrical signals from spreading.