Slow heart rate or Bradycardia: Will my heart stop?
Dizzy? Tired? You Might Have Bradycardia
Sometimes, a drop in your energy levels isn't just a side effect of getting older: it's a symptom of bradycardia. Here's what happened when one woman had a scary fall — and how she got back on her feet.
By Denise Mann
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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Because Barbara Hanson, 75, spent so much of her time on the go, she never suspected she had a troublingly slow heart rate. A Dallas-based, part-time teacher for the blind, she still spends her days traveling from school to school and helping children learn Braille. But about a year ago, her schedule was suddenly interrupted when she began falling down on the job — literally.
“It’s pretty scary when you are walking through the school, and the next thing you know, you’re flat on your face,” she recalls. “I’m not the kind of person who runs to the doctor real often, but this was enough to scare me.”
When Hanson arrived at the doctor’s office, the internist ordered an electrocardiogram, or EKG. This test measures the electrical activity in a person’s heart. Sure enough, after the results came back, she was diagnosed with bradycardia.
Until her diagnosis, Hanson had never even heard that word before. She also had no reason to suspect she had an underlying heart condition. At the time, she was taking medication to control her high blood pressure, but otherwise was in excellent health.
What Is Bradycardia?
“Bradycardia is a common [heart] rhythm disturbance,” says David Friedman, MD, chief of heart failure services at North Shore-LIJ's Franklin Hospital in Valley Stream, New York, and an assistant professor at the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. The disorder is characterized by a heart rate of less than 60 beats per minute, according to the American Heart Association. (Unless you’re a very active young adult, this heart rate is considered to be slow.)
It “starts silently and decreases the ability of the heart to pump oxygen-rich blood to the body," says Dr. Friedman. The result: fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, and exercise intolerance. “The tendency to pass out or feel dizzy or light-headed easily is a warning sign,” he says.
People who have risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, can have an increased chance of developing bradycardia, says Friedman. An EKG test can help a doctor spot the condition. Another option: Tracking your heart rate with a Holter monitor, which can identify the heart rhythm disorder.
How Do You Treat Bradycardia?
The good news is that bradycardia can be treated and even cured. Friedman explains that certain medications can slow down a person’s heart rate, and stopping that treatment can in turn stop bradycardia.
Even if the condition can’t be reversed, doctors can still treat it with a pacemaker. Pacemakers are small, battery-operated devices that are implanted in a person’s chest. They continuously monitor the heart’s electrical system and correct any abnormal rhythms.
Hanson received a pacemaker of her own shortly after her diagnosis. “It’s about as big as a 50-cent piece,” she says of the device. “The operation was simple.”
Since then, Hanson says she feels better than ever. She’s hasn’t experienced any other symptoms of bradycardia, nor has she fallen down, either.
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Hanson also doesn’t need to take her high blood pressure medication anymore. She continues to swim at her local YMCA every day and is more confident about getting around and watching her grandchildren.
“There are a lot of things that I can do better,” she says.
There are certain drawbacks that come with wearing a pacemaker. Cell phones, MRI machines, and metal detectors can interfere with them. Still, that doesn’t bother Hanson. She can’t hold her phone too close to her chest, but she says that’s certainly preferable to falling down frequently.
Hanson’s last word of advice: Don’t dismiss any of these symptoms as just being one more thing that occurs with old age.
Tell your doctor if you’ve been feeling short of breath lately or tired during exercise, says Friedman. All it can take to determine if you have bradycardia is one EKG. And if you’re diagnosed with the condition, work out a follow-up plan with your doctor, he says.
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