What Is Bradycardia?

An abnormally slow heart rate can cause symptoms, especially with exercise

There are two main types of bradycardia, or slow heart rhythms, that originate in different places in the heart. Sinus bradycardia is a resting heart rate of under 60 beats per minute in adults and arises from the sinus node that normally sets heart rhythm. This is not always cause for concern. Slow rates due to heart block, however, may lead to serious symptoms and outcomes.

This article explains bradycardia symptoms and their causes. It discusses how healthcare providers diagnose the condition, and bradycardia treatment for both types of heart rate problems.

The hearts of adults at rest normally beat between 60 and 100 times per minute.

Symptoms of Bradycardia
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When a Slow Heart Rate Is Normal

The sinoatrial (or sinus) node is often referred to as "the heart's natural pacemaker." It's the part of the heart that produces electrical signals that trigger each heartbeat.

At rest, the sinus node typically generates electrical impulses for a heart rate between 60 and 100 times per minute, which is a normal sinus rhythm.

Sinus bradycardia is a heart rate between 50 to 60 beats per minute. While technically outside of the normal range, these values can be entirely normal for some people. A healthy body is very good at regulating the heart rate to support the body’s functions.

Physiological bradycardia is a form of sinus bradycardia. Among people who have it—including healthy young people and older people in good physical condition—their resting heart rate may hover in the 40s or 50s. People also have lower heart rates when sleeping.

Slow heart rates without symptoms usually are no cause for concern. However, when the heart rate becomes too slow to pump enough blood, it needs treatment. Sinus bradycardia that produces symptoms is a sign you should seek medical care.

What Is a Good Pulse Rate by Age?

Children have faster heart rates, but by age 10 the rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm) is the same as for nearly all adults. Athletes often have lower resting heart rates. What changes with age is the "target heart rate" when healthy people exercise. For someone in their 20s, that's 100 to 170 bpm. If you're in your 50s, it's 85 to 145 bpm. By age 70, it's 75 to 128.

Bradycardia Symptoms

If the heart rate is abnormally slow, several of the body’s organs may not function normally. A heart rate that is too slow results in various symptoms, including:

These symptoms worsen with exercise because the body’s needs increase when it's placed under stress. However, symptoms may also be present when the body is at rest if bradycardia is severe.

If bradycardia happens for an extended period of time without treatment, it can lead to complications such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Angina
  • Cardiac arrest

If you have any symptoms of bradycardia, talk to your healthcare provider to determine the cause. Proper treatment can return the heart rate to normal.

The risk of dying from bradycardia is relatively low when there are no symptoms. However, a case of symptomatic bradycardia may cause cardiac arrest if left untreated.

Bradycardia Causes

The general causes of bradycardia fall into two categories: sinus node-mediated and heart block. Of the two, sinus node bradycardia is more common.

Sinus Node Bradycardia

When the sinus node produces electrical impulses at a relatively reduced rate, the heart rate becomes slow, resulting in sinus bradycardia.

Sinus bradycardia causes can be either transient (meaning that they don't last long) or persistent. Persistent reasons are more likely to require treatment.

  • Transient sinus bradycardia: An increased tone in the vagus nerve, such as during sleep, often leads to this type of low heart rate. The vagal tone tells you how well the vagus nerve is functioning. This nerve helps regulate the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. Once the nerve's tone returns to normal, the heart rate also returns to normal. Therefore, you may require no permanent treatment of the bradycardia itself.
  • Persistent sinus bradycardia: Intrinsic sinus node disease (within the sinus node itself) most often causes a persistent type of sinus bradycardia. Usually, intrinsic sinus node disease is due to fibrosis (scarring) within the sinus node, a common result of aging. Intrinsic sinus node disease usually occurs in people who are 70 years of age or older.

Intrinsic Sinus Node Disease

In people with intrinsic sinus node disease, the heart rate can be slow both at rest and during exertion. People with symptomatic disease often have sinus node dysfunction (sick sinus syndrome), the most common cause of bradycardia requiring a pacemaker. As a result, however, their heart rate can fluctuate between bradycardia and tachycardia (rapid heart rate).

In addition to intrinsic sinus node disease, several other medical conditions can cause sinus bradycardia, including:

Sinus bradycardia treatment will often focus on resolving these underlying causes.

Heart Block

The second general type of bradycardia is heart block. In contrast to sinus bradycardia, heart block is always an abnormal condition. 

Heart block occurs when the heart's electrical impulses are wholly or partially blocked as they travel from the heart's atria to the ventricles. The ventricles are the chambers that pump blood out of the heart.

Since the sinus node that usually determines the heart rate is in the atrium, a block between the atria and ventricles causes a change in how fast the heart beats.

When the heart's ventricles can't get information from the sinus node about how fast to beat, they use information from another part of the heart between the atria and ventricles, called the AV node. This broken communication results in potentially dangerous bradycardia.

As with abnormal sinus bradycardias, a heart block can be either transient or persistent.

  • Transient heart block can occur with certain conditions such as Lyme disease, thyroid dysfunction, or drug toxicity (particularly digitalis, a medication used to treat certain heart conditions). In these cases, treatment of the underlying condition is necessary. Sometimes, treatment may include a temporary pacemaker.
  • Persistent heart block can result from many conditions, including genetics, congenital disorders, sarcoidosis, and amyloidosis. If your healthcare provider suspects a structural disease like cardiomyopathy, they may recommend imaging with a transthoracic echocardiogram (an ultrasound to see the heart in motion).
  • Partial blocks occur when the electrical signals to the heart are delayed or intermittently stopped. A complete block happens when the signals stop entirely.

Pacemaker therapy is more likely with partial and complete blocks. Persistent heart block, primarily symptomatic or complete, also is more likely to require permanent treatment.

Diagnosis

Evaluating bradycardia is usually pretty straightforward.

An electrocardiogram (ECG) will show that the slow heart rate is present. With sinus bradycardia, ECG tests will help to determine if it's the source of a slow heart rate or if it's due to heart block instead.

Then the healthcare provider must determine whether the bradycardia is likely to be persistent or due to a transient (temporary) cause, such as an infection. This can often be determined by simply taking a careful medical history.

If other tests are needed, they may include:

  • Stress test: In some people (mainly older people), sinus node disease or heart block may produce symptoms only during exertion. A stress test can help to diagnose these cases. That's because it can identify whether or not the heart rate increases as it should in response to an exercise challenge. (Without this, such cases may seem asymptomatic.)
  • Prolonged ambulatory ECG: With this test, you do normal daily activities while wearing a Holter monitor. It can also help diagnose bradycardias that occur only intermittently.
  • Electrophysiology study: A specialized cardiac catheterization can be fairly accurate in diagnosing sinus node disease and heart block. In this procedure, a long, thin catheter is threaded up through a vein to the heart. However, it is usually not necessary to perform this invasive testing to make a diagnosis.

Treatment

The treatment of slow heart rate depends on whether the cause is sinus bradycardia or heart block and whether or not it's reversible.

Reversible

A physician might treat transient sinus bradycardia by recommending you avoid the kinds of conditions that trigger it. For example, treating sleep apnea or adjusting medications are some things that might resolve transient bradycardia.

Persistent bradycardia can also be reversed if it is caused by:

In these cases, treating the underlying problem often takes care of the slow heart rate, too.

If sinus bradycardia is reversible or produces no symptoms, it can often be managed through regular medical checkups.

Permanent

When heart block or sinus node dysfunction causes bradycardia, your healthcare provider may recommend a permanent pacemaker.

In some cases, healthcare providers will do a trial of a temporary pacemaker. For example, when a partial AV block is caused by a myocardial infarction (heart attack), using a temporary pacemaker can help healthcare providers to determine if the block is permanent or reversible.

Summary

Bradycardia is defined as a heart rate of fewer than 60 beats per minute. The hearts of adults at rest typically beat between 60 and 100 times per minute.

A lower-than-normal heart rate poses no problem for many people unless certain symptoms appear. These symptoms include chest pain, dizziness, easy fatigue, and shortness of breath. Then it's time to consult a physician to determine the underlying cause.

The general causes of bradycardia fall into two categories: sinus node-mediated and heart block. The former is more common of the two. Treatment may involve correcting any underlying causes or implanting a pacemaker.

A Word From Verywell

You may feel worried if you learn you have a low heart rate, but this is typically a treatable condition. Your healthcare provider can discuss your specific cause and treatment options with you. Be sure to call right away if you have symptoms such as shortness of breath.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should I worry about bradycardia?

    It's important to know the dangers of bradycardia. A slow heart rate that causes symptoms, such as chest pain or shortness of breath, requires medical attention. This can lead to life-threatening cardiac arrest. Over time, it also may cause high blood pressure. An early diagnosis and treatment are important.

  • Can stress and anxiety cause bradycardia?

    Some studies suggest people with anxiety disorders have a higher risk of slow heart rates. Anxiety also is shown to be a predictor of cardiovascular disease and sudden cardiac death. Contact your healthcare provider if you are concerned about stress and anxiety affecting your health.

  • Can sinus bradycardia be cured?

    In some cases, yes, but it will depend on the cause. Slow heart rates due to infection or inflammation can be treated. Medications can be changed if they lead to slow heart rates. Keep in mind that in some cases, sinus bradycardia is actually a sign of a well-conditioned heart.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Richard N. Fogoros, MD
Richard N. Fogoros, MD, is a retired professor of medicine and board-certified in internal medicine, clinical cardiology, and clinical electrophysiology.