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Heart Palpitations. Why Am I Having Them?


Heart palpitations are a form of abnormal heart rhythm that occurs when an electrical impulse in the heart fires from the wrong part of the heart or at the wrong time. While they are usually completely harmless, they may be a symptom of a more serious heart problem. You may not even notice them, or they may be strong enough to cause chest pain.

A variety of things can cause heart palpitations; some are controllable, while others are not. Read on for answers to the following questions:

  • What does a heart palpitation feel like?
  • What causes heart palpitations?
  • Can you do anything to stop them?
  • When should you call a doctor? When should you call 9-1-1?
  • How will they diagnose and treat you at the hospital?

What does a heart palpitation feel like?

People describe heart palpitations as a fluttering or pounding, a racing heart, flip-flopping heart, or a skipped beat. Most people describe the sensation as being in their chest, but some feel it in their throat or neck. If the pounding is very strong, you may even have pain in your chest.

Heart palpitations can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. They can happen once or twice as a rarity, or you may have several in a day.

What causes heart palpitations?

Many different things can lead to heart palpitations. In some situations, your doctor may not even be able to diagnose what is causing them.

Heart palpitations may be caused by:

  • Alcohol
  • Anemia
  • Blood loss
  • Chemical stimulants, such as caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, amphetamines, and some cold and cough medicines that contain pseudoephedrine
  • Dehydration
  • Depression
  • Fever
  • Heart Arrhythmias: You have a higher chance of this being the cause if you have a history of heart valve abnormalities, heart disease, or risk factors for heart disease.
  • Hormonal changes, such as those that occur during pregnancy or menopause
  • History of heart surgery or heart attack
  • Low carbon dioxide levels
  • Low blood sugar
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Low potassium
  • Certain medications, such as asthma inhalers, beta-blockers, blood pressure medications, antiarrhythmic medications, or thyroid medications
  • An overactive thyroid
  • Sleeping on your side: This puts pressure on your heart and can lead to a misfire in the electrical system of your heart.
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Structural heart problems
  • Spicy or rich foods
  • Vigorous exercise

Is there a way to stop them?

You cannot control all causes of heart palpitations. Some of them result from other processes in your body; you may need to see a doctor to find solutions to these situations.

Other heart problems, such as arrhythmias, heart surgery, or a heart attack, are sometimes to blame for heart palpitations. Sometimes an imbalance in your body, such as an overactive thyroid, anemia, or hormonal changes, can cause them. Occasionally, diet, exercise, or medication can correct them.

However, some heart palpitations are, to some extent, controllable. If stress, low blood sugar, poor diet, dehydration, or the amount of caffeine you consume are leading to your palpitations, you can often make changes to stop or reduce the frequency.

Follow these simple lifestyle changes to control your heart palpitations:

  • Stop smoking. Cigarettes contain nicotine which is a chemical stimulant.
  • Limit alcohol or stop drinking altogether.
  • Eat regular meals to prevent low blood sugar.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Find out if any of your medications could be causing your heart palpitations; ask your doctor or pharmacist if there are any alternatives.
  • Take a deep breath or two when you start to feel palpitations.
  • Try some relaxation techniques.
  • Reduce the amount of stress in your life or find, or find a way to manage it better.
  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants.
  • Try the Valsalva maneuver: When you feel your heart start to flutter or pound, bear down as if you are trying to have a bowel movement.
  • Splash cold water on your face.
  • Cut back on the intensity of your exercise if you start to feel palpitations.

Call your doctor if the above tips do not help and the heart palpitations continue to occur frequently, last for more than a few seconds, or become bothersome or painful.

Call 9-1-1 if you develop chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, dizziness, excessive sweating, or lose consciousness. These could be symptoms of a serious medical emergency.

Can my heart palpitations lead to other problems?

For the most part, heart palpitations are harmless. But if a doctor determines they are the result of a heart condition, you may be at risk for heart failure, cardiac arrest, or a stroke.

Call your doctor if you have a history of heart disease, a heart attack, or heart valve problems, and you suddenly start having heart palpitations.

How are heart palpitations treated?

Your doctor may order the following to reach a diagnosis:

  • Blood and urine tests
  • ECG
  • Chest x-ray
  • Ultrasound of your heart
  • Stress test

The treatment will be different for each person and is dependent on what is causing the palpitations. You may go home with instructions to find better ways to manage stress, drink more water, or stop smoking. Your doctor may give you instructions to change your diet, or prescribe a medication to correct an imbalance in your body. If they determine your palpitations are symptoms of a heart condition, they may decide that you need medication to control your heart rate or some other treatment such as a heart ablation.

Key takeaways

  • Heart palpitations are a form of abnormal heart rhythm.
  • They can range from mild to severe, and are usually not harmful or painful.
  • Many different things can lead to heart palpitations. In some situations, your doctor may not even be able to diagnose what is causing them.
  • Some heart palpitations are, to some extent, controllable through lifestyle changes.
  • You may need to see your doctor if the palpitations are frequent or painful. Your doctor will run tests to determine the causes and discuss the best treatment options with you.

References:

Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Alcohol May Cause You to Develop Irregular Heartbeats. Alcohol May Cause You to Develop Irregular Heartbeats – Cleveland Clinic

Cleveland Clinic (2021). Heart Palpitations: Causes, Treatment and Prevention. Heart Palpitations: Causes, Treatment & Prevention (clevelandclinic.org)

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