WHAT IS ARRHYTHMIA? An arrhythmia occurs when the heart beats too fast, too slow, or irregularly. This keeps the heart from pumping blood properly. Normally, the heartbeat starts in the right atrium, when a special group of cells (the "pacemaker" of the heart) sends an electrical signal causing the muscles to contract. These signals travel through connecting fibers to all parts of the ventricles, and must follow the exact route in order for the heart to pump properly. There are many types of arrhythmia, identified by where they occur in the heart (in the atria or ventricles), and by what happens to the heart's rhythm when they occur. One example is atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that interferes with the heart's ability to pump blood. Abnormal electrical signals cause the atria, or upper chambers of the heart, to contract erratically. Blood then pools in the atria and forms clots. These can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. The most serious arrhythmia is ventricular fibrillation, where the lower chambers quiver and the heart can't pump any blood. This results in collapse and sudden death -- if there isn't immediate medical attention.
HOW MRI WORKS: Magnetic resonance imaging uses radio frequency waves and a strong magnetic field instead of X-rays to provide clear and detailed pictures of internal organs and tissues. These radio waves are directed at protons in hydrogen atoms -- one of the most abundant atoms in the human body, because of the body's high water content. The waves "excite" the protons, and when they "relax," they emit strong radio signals. A computer can turn those signals into a high-contrast image showing differences in the water content and distribution in various bodily tissues.
The American Association of Physicists in Medicine contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.