What is Heart palpitations?
What is Heart palpitations?
Heart palpitations (pal-pih-TAY-shuns) are the feelings of having rapid, fluttering or pounding heart. Heart palpitations can be triggered by stress, exercise, medication or, rarely, a medical condition.
Although heart palpitations can be worrisome, they're usually harmless. In rare cases, heart palpitations can be a symptom of a more serious heart condition, such as an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that may require treatment.
Signs and symptoms
Heart palpitations can feel like your heart is:
- Skipping beats
- Beating too fast
- Pumping harder than usual
You may feel heart palpitations in your throat or neck, as well as your chest. Heart palpitations can occur whether you're active or at rest, and whether you're standing, seated or lying down.
Seek emergency medical attention if heart palpitations are accompanied by:
- Chest discomfort or pain
- Severe shortness of breath
- Severe dizziness
Often the cause of your heart palpitations can't be found. Common causes of heart palpitations include:
- Strong emotional responses, such as stress or anxiety
- Strenuous exercise
- Hormone changes associated with menstruation, pregnancy or menopause
- Taking cold and cough medications that contain pseudoephedrine, a stimulant
- Taking some asthma inhaler medications that contain stimulants
Occasionally heart palpitations can be a sign of a serious problem, such as an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). Arrhythmias may include very fast heart rates (tachycardia), unusually slow heart rates (bradycardia) or an irregular heart rhythm.
You may be at risk of developing palpitations if you:
- Are highly stressed
- Have an anxiety disorder or regularly experience panic attacks
- Are pregnant
- Take medicines that contain stimulants, such as some cold or asthma medications
- Have an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)
- Have other heart problems, such as an arrhythmia, heart defect or previous heart attack
Unless a heart condition is causing your heart palpitations, there's little risk of complications. For palpitations caused by a heart condition, possible complications include:
- Fainting. If your heart beats rapidly, your blood pressure may drop, causing you to faint. This may be more likely if you have a heart problem, such as congenital heart disease or certain valve problems.
- Cardiac arrest. Rarely, palpitations can be caused by life-threatening arrhythmias and can cause your heart to stop beating effectively.
- Stroke. If palpitations are due to atrial fibrillation, a condition in which the upper chambers of the heart quiver instead of beating properly, blood can pool and cause clots to form. If a clot breaks loose, it can block a brain artery, causing a stroke.
- Heart failure. This can result if your heart is pumping ineffectively for a prolonged period due to an arrhythmia, such as atrial fibrillation. Sometimes, controlling the rate of an arrhythmia that's causing heart failure can improve your heart's function.
If your doctor thinks you have heart palpitations, he or she will listen to your heart using a stethoscope. Your doctor may also look for signs of medical conditions that can cause heart palpitations, such as a swollen thyroid gland.
Other tests your doctor may perform include:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG). In this noninvasive test, a technician will place probes on your chest that record the electrical impulses that make your heart beat.
An ECG can help your doctor detect irregularities in your heart's rhythm and structure that could cause palpitations. The test may be performed while you rest or exercise (stress electrocardiogram).
- Holter monitoring. A Holter monitor is a portable device that you wear to record a continuous ECG, usually for 24 to 72 hours. Holter monitoring is used to detect heart palpitations that aren't found during a regular ECG exam.
- Event recording. If you don't have irregular heart rhythms while you wear a Holter monitor, your doctor may recommend an event recorder.
You wear an event recorder as much as possible throughout the day, and push a button on a recording device you wear on your belt to record your heartbeat when you have symptoms. You may need to wear an event monitor for several weeks.
- Echocardiogram. This noninvasive exam, which includes an ultrasound of your chest, shows detailed images of your heart's structure and function.
Ultrasound waves are transmitted, and their echoes are recorded with a device called a transducer that's held outside your body. A computer uses the information from the transducer to create moving images on a video monitor.
Unless your doctor finds that you have a heart condition, heart palpitations seldom require treatment. Instead, your doctor may recommend ways for you to avoid the triggers that cause your palpitations.
If your palpitations are caused by a condition, such as an arrhythmia, your treatment will focus on correcting the condition.