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A 'skipped' heartbeat is scary. What makes irregular, fluttering heartbeats (or arrhythmias) even more frightening is that they are usually accompanied by shortness of breath, crushing or pounding chest pain and a general sense of disorientation. In short, you feel as though you're going to die. Fortunately, arrhythmias aren't usually fatal. But they are undeniable signals that something is wrong.
One cardiovascular surgeon has found that some heart irregu­larities may be triggered by overexposure to chemicals to which a person is highly allergic. Dr William J. Rea, a clinical associate professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, describes twelve people who had no artery-clogging plaque (the main symptom of heart disease), but who suffered arrhythmias or chest pains (or both) when exposed to one or more chemicals commonly found in the home or workplace - natural gas, ciga­rette smoke, chlorine, perfume, floor cleaners, formaldehyde and pesticides. When placed in a setting free of all traces of chemical fumes, all heart symptoms cleared in ten out of the twelve individuals (Annals of Allergy).
One particularly frightening type of arrhythmia is a heart spasm. It feels as though you're being hit in the chest with a two-by-four. In fact, some medical researchers now believe that spasms trigger some heart attacks, irrespective of any buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries. Dr Rea's research indicates that, in some individuals, heart spasms may be a response to allergens by the muscles around the heart's blood vessels. We spoke with a nurse in Dallas, a patient of Dr Rea's who experi­enced heart spasms as a direct result of exposure to inhalant allergens. Her story is a dramatic example of the effectiveness of his approach.
'One day I had some very sharp chest pains,' she told us. 'I got very lightheaded and dizzy. The doctor I work for sent me right over to the hospital, where tests showed I had a "malfunc­tion of the heart of unknown cause", as the doctors put it. They gave me some nitroglycerin.
'Some months later, I was driving home from work when my heart raced and then seemed to stop. I passed out. When I came to, I had real sharp chest pains. I put two nitroglycerins under my tongue and drove home. My husband took me to the hospital and I was admitted to the coronary care unit.
'The EKG showed some changes, which they diagnosed as a heart attack. Then they did an arteriogram [a series of X-rays of the heart], which showed spasms in the heart's main blood vessel.
'However, they overlooked the fact that I was allergic to the iodine in the arteriogram dye, even though the information was on my chart. I guess the doctor who ordered the arteriogram didn't believe in allergy to medications. Anyway, he recommended heart surgery.'
But the nurse suspected that the iodine had something to do with the spasms during the arteriogram. At that point, Dr Rea was called in. 'The first thing Dr Rea said was, "Before we talk about surgery, let's talk about your allergies,'" she told us.
Tests showed that besides allergy to iodine, she was also allergic to pollen and other inhalants and to nine foods, as well as being highly sensitive to chemicals. As a nurse, she used various antiseptics and disinfectants in her daily work. No one had ever considered that fumes from the scrubbing solutions had anything to do with her heart spasms.
After a long and laborious process, Dr Rea formulated immu­nization injections for her allergies to pollen and other inhalants, and her reactions to chemicals such as scents and fragrances.
Dr Rea comments, 'When I first saw this woman, I thought she was having one continuous heart attack. But we've finally pulled her out of it. She's having fewer spasms, and she's much better now.'
In addition to receiving her injections, the woman has learned certain techniques to avoid the odours and fumes which give her trouble. In supermarkets, for instance, she bypasses the aisles with scented candles, laundry soaps and household cleaners - or she holds her breath as she quickly passes through those sections. She also carries a pocket-size negative ion gener­ator with her, and is very careful to avoid foods to which she is allergic.
Although this case is highly unusual, Dr Rea feels that it fits in well with current medical understanding of the role of spasms in heart disease. He believes that in certain cases, coronary artery spasms are the blood vessel's reaction to not only foods and chemicals, but to anything in the environment to which the individual is highly sensitive. He also thinks that reducing exposure to allergens in such people - especially massive ex­posure to chemicals in the home, work-place or shopping areas -takes a huge burden off the heart and fosters rapid recovery.
'Susceptibilities gradually subside and the patient is able to return to functioning in the outside world,' says Dr Rea. 'However, a home oasis must always be preserved' (Annals of Allergy).
(A 'home oasis' is a separate room that has been cleared of all possible sources of chemicals and other allergic offenders, sometimes with the help of an air filter.)


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