Events like panic attacks or low blood sugar can sometimes mimic arrhythmia symptoms. Several other conditions can contribute to, occur alongside, or result from arrhythmia.

An arrhythmia is the medical term for an abnormal heart rate. Arrhythmias can cause your heart to beat:

  • too fast
  • too slow
  • in an unnatural rhythm

Some arrhythmias are minor and might not require treatment. Others may increase your risk of developing serious conditions such as heart failure or stroke.

Some underlying health conditions can increase your risk of developing an arrhythmia or can potentially trigger arrhythmia symptoms.

Keep reading to learn more about conditions that can mimic an arrhythmia and contribute to its development.

Many conditions can lead to temporary changes in your heart rate and may mimic an arrhythmia.

Anxiety and panic attacks

When you feel stressed or anxious, your heart rate can increase even when you’re not physically active.

A panic attack can cause a racing heart and other symptoms similar to those of a type of arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation (AFib), such as sweating or lightheadedness.

High caffeine intake

Consuming caffeine can cause a rapid heart rate and heart palpitations.

Heart palpitations are brief episodes of heart fluttering or pounding that generally aren’t due to an underlying medical problem. These palpitations may or may not be related to an arrhythmia.

Changes to your heart rate caused by caffeine generally aren’t serious, but extremely large amounts of caffeine can contribute to cardiac arrest.

Strenuous exercise

Strenuous exercise can induce heart palpitations. These palpitations tend to go away shortly after you stop exercising.

Low blood sugar

Low blood sugar often occurs when you go extended periods without consuming carbohydrates. It can trigger heart palpitations and other symptoms such as:

Many conditions can contribute to the development of arrhythmia. These include:

Heart and blood vessel diseases

Some heart and blood vessel conditions increase your risk of arrhythmia. They include:

Thyroid disease

Both high and low thyroid hormone levels have links to arrhythmia. These conditions are known as hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, respectively.

Hyperthyroidism is known to increase heart rate and can contribute to abnormal rhythms such as AFib.

Cardiac arrhythmias and worsening of osteoporosis are the most common side effects of oversupplementing thyroid replacement therapy for hypothyroidism. It’s important to get routine blood lab work with a healthcare professional as monitoring can reduce arrhythmia.

Hypothyroidism may also cause arrhythmias like bradycardia and AFib.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is a chronic lung condition often linked to smoking.

Research suggests that COPD might contribute to the development of several types of arrhythmia and heart conditions, such as:

Obesity

Obesity significantly increases your risk of arrhythmia due to factors such as:

  • increased filling pressure in the chambers of your heart
  • higher workload on the left side of your heart
  • fat deposits in heart tissue
  • increased heart inflammation and scarring
  • changes to heart electrical signaling
  • neurological and hormone changes

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea seems to be common among people with arrhythmias. Experts think it might contribute to the development of arrhythmias in several ways, such as by causing:

  • periods of low blood oxygen
  • surges in sympathetic nervous system activity
  • heart remodeling

Viral infections

Studies link many different viral infections to arrhythmia, including:

These viruses might contribute to the development of arrhythmia in several ways, such as causing inflammation and scarring in your heart tissue.

Chronically high alcohol consumption

Research links drinking too much alcohol to many different types of arrhythmia, such as AFib and atrial flutter.

Holiday heart syndrome refers to AFib induced by binge drinking alcohol. It most commonly occurs during:

  • long weekends
  • vacations
  • holidays

The most common symptom is heart palpitations, which may be temporary or long lasting.

Arrhythmia triggers

Common triggers for arrhythmia episodes include:

  • high or low blood sugar levels
  • caffeine
  • illegal drugs
  • medications that increase alertness or energy
  • low electrolyte levels
  • strenuous exercise
  • strong emotions such as stress, anxiety, or anger
  • vomiting or coughing
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Some arrhythmias can lead to serious complications if left untreated. Some of the potential complications include:

Blood clots

People with AFib have turbulent blood flow through their atria that can lead to incomplete emptying of blood from the heart. This disruption of blood flow can lead to the formation of blood clots.

Stroke

Blood clots that reach your brain can cause a stroke. Experts think AFib causes 10% to 12% of ischemic strokes. Ischemic strokes are those caused by the blockage of a blood vessel in your brain.

Studies have reported the risk of ischemic stroke in people with AFib as more than six times higher than in people without AFib. Some people with AFib are at greater risk of stroke than others. A cardiologist (heart doctor) can help you understand your stroke risk with AFib.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that blocks an artery in your lung. It can be life threatening.

In a 2018 study, researchers reported an almost 11-fold relative risk of increased pulmonary embolism in people with AFib versus people without AFib.

Heart failure

Heart failure develops when your heart can’t pump enough blood to supply your body. AFib and heart failure can each make you more likely to develop the other.

Cardiac arrest

Ventricular fibrillation is the most common cause of cardiac arrest, occurring in about 70% of cases. Cardiac arrest is when your heart stops beating suddenly.

An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rate that can cause your heart to beat overly fast, slow, or in an abnormal rhythm. Minor arrhythmias are usually not serious, but more severe cases may cause life threatening complications.

Your doctor can best advise you on whether your arrhythmia needs treatment. Treatment often consists of medications to help your heart regain its normal rhythm.