Is a Low Heart Rate Dangerous?

A low heart rate can lead to fainting and falls if you’re not a highly trained athlete, but the condition is often treatable.

low heart rate

Health risks can develop from a low heart rate—a condition called bradycardia.

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A low heart rate may be a sign of an efficiently working heart. Or, if the rate becomes too slow, a low heart rate could be a sign of health complications down the road.

A normal or healthy resting heart rate for an adult is between 60 and 100 beats a minute. A heart rate near the lower end of that range is considered a good sign. Your heart isn’t working too hard to pump blood effectively throughout the body. It’s one indication of cardiovascular fitness. A very rapid heart rate, on the other hand, raises your risk of heart failure, blood clots, and other problems.

But health risks can develop if a low heart rate gets too low—a condition called bradycardia. Bradycardia is usually diagnosed when your resting heart rate is less than 60 beats per minute (BPM). In some cases, the threshold is less than 50 BPM. Those numbers are guidelines. You may experience heart-related complications if your resting heart rate is 65 or 70 BPM. Or, you may be fine with a resting heart rate that is less than 60 BPM. Long-distance runners and other athletes in top cardiovascular health often have a resting heart rate that is under 60 BPM.

If you’re not training for a marathon or swimming dozens of laps every day, you should talk with your doctor if you notice a low heart rate.

Low Heart Rate Risks

One of the biggest concerns of bradycardia is a condition called syncope. It means a loss of consciousness (fainting), usually due to insufficient blood flow to the brain. A low heart rate can compromise your circulation. Your heart may not pump fast enough to keep a healthy flow of blood up to your brain and throughout your body. Fainting, of course, can lead to dangerous falls and bone fractures.

Fainting spells are actually one of the most common symptoms of bradycardia. They may be the first indication that your heart rate is slowing down.

To compensate for a slowly beating heart, your heart muscle might try to pump harder to keep up with your body’s demand for oxygenated blood. This can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension) and even heart failure, if your heart muscle works overtime for too long a period. A low heart rate is also paired sometimes with low blood pressure, a condition known as hypotension. Low blood pressure is also a cause of syncope.

However, research suggests that bradycardia does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease—the precursor to a heart attack. A study led by Ajay Dharod, MD, an internal medicine specialist with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, found that a low heart rate by itself does not suggest an inevitable slide toward heart disease. “For a large majority of people with a heart rate in the 40s or 50s, who have no symptoms, the prognosis is very good,” Dr. Dharod says. “Our results should be reassuring for those diagnosed with asymptomatic bradycardia.”


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Treating Low Heart Rate

If you have bradycardia, but not other symptoms, you may not need any treatment. But if you do start to experience fainting or even frequent episodes of feeling lightheaded, or you start to experience chest pain, tell your doctor. If treatment is necessary, your doctor will need to determine the cause of your low heart rate first.

In many cases, bradycardia is caused by problems with the sinoatrial (SA) node. This is sometimes referred to as the heart’s “natural pacemaker.” The SA node is a cluster of cells in the upper part of the heart that sends out electrical signals that help control the beating of your heart. If the SA node is damaged or is otherwise not working properly, your heart rate can slow down, speed up, or become inconsistent. An abnormal heart rate of any type is called an arrhythmia. If the problem is serious enough, you may require a pacemaker. This small device is implanted in the chest. When it detects an arrhythmia, it sends an electrical signal to the heart to help restore a healthy rate.

Another common cause of bradycardia is thyroid disease. Low thyroid function (hypothyroidism) can cause a number of health problems, including low heart rate. Controlling your thyroid disease with medication and lifestyle changes may help correct bradycardia.

A low heart rate may also be a side effect of certain medications, such as digoxin, a common drug used to treat heart failure. Beta blockers, which are often prescribed to treat high blood pressure or tachycardia (abnormally fast heart rate), may also cause your heart to beat too slowly.  “Bradycardia may be problematic in people who are taking medications that also slow their heart rate,” Dr. Dharod says. “Further research is needed to determine whether this association is casually linked to heart rate or to the use of these drugs.”

Adjusting your medication dosage may be enough to reset your heart rate.

Measuring Your Heart Rate

Checking your resting heart rate isn’t difficult. Start by sitting quietly for five minutes or so. Then, place two fingers on the thumb side of your wrist, between the bone and the tendon over your radial artery. Once you feel a pulse, count the number of beats for 15 seconds. Then multiply that number by four. That will give you your beats per minute.

It’s a good idea to do this every so often, just to have a baseline number. If you notice a change—up or down—tell your doctor at your next appointment. You should also talk with your doctor about your target heart rate, particularly if you are an older adult or you have risk factor for cardiovascular problems, such as diabetes, family history of heart disease, smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, or high blood pressure.

Keep in mind that your heart rate should go up when you exercise and then return to a normal resting heart rate soon after you stop. If your heart rate doesn’t rise very much or takes a long time to return to normal, tell your doctor. It may be a sign of a heart that isn’t working optimally. It may not be serious, but it is worth a discussion with your physician.

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  • I happened to be in the hospital in a unit hen my heart rate and blood pressure could not even be read either by the machine or manually when they finally could get a faint heart rate reading it was going from 5-10 bpm I was hooked up to the crash cart after a few hours and no luck getting my rate higher they admitted and brought me up to a room where I was watched 24/7 it also car back my potassium was a3.2 and my disgusting level was very low anyway my heart rate is always low any suggestions

  • I was admitted into the hospital while being taken there by ambulance they couldn’t get a blood pressure read or even a heart beat read they were way to low they had the crash cart ready my pressure was extremely low and my heart rate was going from 10 to 5 beats per minute I was admitted and had someone sit and watch me 24/7 the nurses were nervous they said I belonged in ICU I have no idea why I now suffer from bradicardia I just want to know what to look for and what I should do I’m 48 years old and in my family my uncle my grandfather and grandmother also my mom had heart conditions but my uncle and grandfather both passed before their 49th birthday also during my stay I was told by 4 doctors tell me to go see neuro and get tested for early onset dimentia I do also have a number of health issues to me the bradicardia is #2 on the list cause I’m always in the 30-60 range and when the doctor said I might need to have a pacemaker put in why didn’t they when I couldn’t get past a20 for my hospital stay any one can give me information please

  • Get your PCP to test your Thyroid Function. Untreated Hypothyroidism can cause Bradycardia….and even Tachycardia. It can have profound effects on the cardiovascular system.

  • Lifetime pulse of 48 to 50. At age 65 almost passed out at work. Pulse was 32 when checked, feeling normal. Went to urgent care, pulse was 35 with EKG and blood test. Sent home, told to go to emergency room if dizzy. We’ll call you for cardiologist apt. 5 days later I passed out without warning, fell 18 ft, broke 10 ribs, clavicle, ruptured lung and spleen, broke vertebrate in neck and chest. I have a pacemaker set at 50 now.

  • Sudip G.

    My heart rate goes down up to 35 while awaking. Slows down even further during sleep. Agun sometime found 72. Pls advise.

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