When a person feels that fluttering feeling in the heart or feels rapid or pounding heartbeats, they are experiencing what is known as heart palpitations. When a person experiences heart palpitations, it may be due to a number of triggers, such as medication, exercise, stress or, much less commonly, a medical condition that is underlying.
Even though it is a worrisome experience to feel heart palpitations, it is usually a harmless occurrence since the heart is still effectively pumping blood. A person can usually prevent the heart palpitations from recurring by avoiding whatever the cause of the trigger is.
In rare cases, experiencing heart palpitations may actually be a symptom of a heart condition that is much more serious, such as arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat, and this may require treatment.
Symptoms of Heart Palpitations
- The symptoms of heart palpitations generally feel like:
- Skipping a heartbeat;
- Fluttering heartbeats;
- A heartbeat that is going too quickly; or
- A heartbeat that is pumping harder than normal.
Heart palpitations can be felt in the neck or in the throat, or they may also be felt in the chest. The feeling of heart palpitations may occur whether a person is at rest, active, and it can happen whether they are seated, laying down or standing.
When to See a Doctor
If the occurrence of heart palpitations is ultimate a concerning one, it is recommended to go see a doctor. He or she may wish to conduct tests to monitor the heart in order to determine whether or not the heart palpitations are due to a much more serious underlying heart problem. It is highly recommended that a person seek emergency medical attention in the event that the heart palpitations come accompanied with:
- Chest pain or discomfort;
- Fainting; or
- Shortness of breath.
Causes of Heart Palpitations
It is often the case that the true cause of what triggers heart palpitations cannot be determined. There are a few common causes that are believed to be responsible for instances of heart palpitations, such as:
- Stress, anxiety or any other similar strong emotional responses;
- Strenuous exercise;
- Hormone changes related to pregnancy, menstruation or menopause;
- Taking cough or cold medications that have the stimulant ingredient pseudoephedrine; or
- Taking any kind of asthma medication inhaler that has a stimulant in it.
However, it is possible, though uncommon, for a heart palpitation to be the symptom of a more serious underlying condition, such as an abnormal heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, or hyperthyroidism, which is an overactive thyroid gland. Arrhythmias might include unusually slow heart rates (bradycardia), very fast heart rates (tachycardia) or simply a heart rhythm that is irregular (atrial fibrillation).
Risk Factors for Heart Palpitations
Those are at risk for developing heart palpitations are those who:
- are very stressed;
- have a present anxiety disorder or otherwise regularly undergo panic attacks;
- are pregnant;
- have an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism);
- take medications that have stimulants in them, such as certain asthma or cold medications; and
- have other similar heart problems, such as a heart defect, an arrhythmia or have previously had a heart attack.
Complications Arising From Heart Palpitations
Unless the heart palpitations are a sign or a symptom of an underlying, more serious heart condition, there is very little risk of developing any complications. If the heart palpitations are a sign or a symptom of an underlying, more serious heart condition, some of the more possible complications arising from heart palpitations include:
When a heart beats quicker than it normally does, it is possible for the blood pressure to drop dramatically, which causes a person to faint. The likelihood of fainting is higher for those who have a certain kind of heart problem, such as some valve problems or problems with congenital heart disease.
Though this is a very rare occurrence, it is possible for palpitations, which are caused by a life threatening type of arrhythmia, to suddenly cause the heart to stop beating in an efficient manner (cardiac arrest).
Should the palpitations further worsen to the point where the heart does not properly beat but instead quivers, it may cause blood to begin pooling. When blood pools, it may cause the formation of blood clot. Should a blood clot break loose, it may lead to a brain artery and it may obstruct it, which causes a stroke. Complications from this may include damaging a portion of the brain or it may even lead to death.
When the heart is not effectively pumping for a prolonged period of time, and when the heart palpitations is caused by arrhythmia, such as atrial fibrillation, this may be a complication. Sometimes, in order to improve the way the heart functions, it is possible to control the rate of arrhythmia that is beginning to cause heart failure.
Preparing For an Appointment with the Doctor
If a person is experiencing heart palpitations along with a severe shortness of breath, fainting or chest paint, it is extremely important to immediately seek emergency medical attention. However, if the heart palpitations are brief and no other worrisome symptoms or signs seem to be present, it is recommended to make an appointment to see a doctor. The doctor may be able to determine whether the heart palpitations are a harmless occurrence or if they are the symptom of something much more serious, such as a heart condition.
Because an appointment with the doctor is usually limited in time and can be brief, and because it is important to cover a large amount of ground with the doctor, it is recommended that a person get fully prepared for an appointment before attending one. This section is provided in order to offer some insight with regards to the best way to prepare for an appointment for a doctor, as well as what to expect when attending the appointment.
What Can Be Done
Know all of the pre-appointment restrictions, if any. When calling to make the appointment, be sure to ask if any exist, as well as whether or not there is anything that should be done in advance, such as restricting the diet.
Take a notepad and write down what other symptoms, including heart palpitations, that may be present, even if they do not appear to have any direct correlation to the heart palpitations in the first place.
Take a notepad and write down any personal information that may be key to diagnosis, including any family history of arrhythmias, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke or diabetes, in addition to any recent life changes or major stresses. Write down all medications that are currently being taken, since heart palpitations are a possible side effect, including any supplements or vitamins.
If it is possible, take a friend or a family member along for the ride so that they can recall or remember information that may have otherwise been missed or forgotten. It can often be a difficult process to remember every detail that the doctor discussed during an appointment, since there is plenty of ground to cover in a short period of time.
Be ready to talk about habits with regards to exercise and diet. If no diet or exercise routine is currently strictly followed, be prepared for the possibilities of discussing with the doctor about any challenges that may be faced with regards to getting started on a routine.
Write down any questions to ask the doctor.
Because the time spent with the doctor is usually limited, it can be beneficial coming up with a list of questions so that the time that would otherwise be spent thinking up questions can be reserved for going over other points in greater detail.
List the questions from the ones that are more important to the ones that are least important in case time runs out. Some basic questions to ask about heart palpitations may include:
- What is the most likely cause of the heart palpitations?
- What are some other likely causes for the heart palpitations?
- What should be done if the heart palpitations recur?
- What kinds of tests are necessary to determine the cause?
- What is likely the best course of action?
- How much activity is an appropriate level?
- What are some of the other alternatives to the primary approach that is being suggested?
- These other health conditions are also present. What is the best way to effectively manage them together?
- Should any certain restrictions be followed?
- Should a specialist be seen?
- Does there exist a generic alternative to the medication that is being prescribed?
- Are there any printed materials, such as brochures, that may be taken home to read or any Web sites that may be recommended?
Feel free to ask any other questions that arise if there is time or to ask more questions to go over points that are not fully understood the first time around.
What to Expect From the Doctor
The doctor will probably have a list of questions to ask as well, and being ready to answer these questions will reserve even more time for clarifying other points later on. The doctor may wish to ask:
- When did the first onset of heart palpitations occur?
- Have the symptoms been occasional or continuous?
- Do these heart palpitations suddenly start and stop?
- Does it appear as if though the palpitations come with some kind of pattern, such as always occurring during a certain activity or during the same time of each day?
- During the heart palpitations, does the heart still continue to beat steadily?
- If anything, what seems to improve the heart palpitations?
- If anything, what seems to worsen the heart palpitations?
- Are there any other symptoms present during these heart palpitations, such as dizziness, fainting, chest paint or shortness of breath?
- Have there ever been heart rhythm problems experienced before, such as atrial fibrillation?
What Can Be Done in the Meantime
Prior to attending the appointment, it is possible to attempt improving the symptoms by avoiding the usual stresses or activities that may trigger heart palpitations. Some of the more common triggers include drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, anxiety or panic attacks, or taking any kind of medication or supplements that have stimulants in them, such as some cold medicines or energy drinks.
Tests and Diagnosis
If the doctor feels that there are heart palpitations, he or she will wish to listen to the heart using a stethoscope to check whether or not the heart is beating either irregularly or too rapidly. He or she will also probably search for any symptoms of medical conditions that are known to cause heart palpitations, such as an overactive thyroid gland.
Some other tests that the doctor may wish to conduct include:
Electrocardiogram, or ECG. This is a noninvasive test in which a technician takes probes and places them on the chest so that it can monitor the electrical pulses that are responsible for making the heart beat. The device will record the electronic signals and the results should help a doctor figure out whether or not there are any irregularities within the rhythm of the heart and its structure, which may cause the palpitations. It is possible to have an electrocardiogram while exercising (stress electrocardiogram) or while at rest.
Holter monitoring. This is similar to an ECG exam, except it is a portable device that is worn to record the electrical pulses for up to three days. This device is used when heart palpitations cannot be found by way of a standard ECG.
Treatments and Drugs
Unless the doctor finds that there is some kind of underlying medical condition, an onset of heart palpitations rarely requires any kind of medication or surgery. The doctor will likely recommend staying away from the common triggers. If an underlying condition is present and is the cause of the heart palpitations, then he or she will likely recommend ways to treat the underlying condition in question.
Lifestyle and Home Remedies
The best way to handle heart palpitations at home is to simply avoid the common triggers, such as:
- Reducing stress or anxiety;
- Avoiding stimulants; and
- Avoiding illegal drugs.