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Heart Palpitations – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Updated on March 24, 2014

Heart palpitations refer to sensations of fluttering, rapid, or pounding heart beats. These may get triggered by exercise, stress, medicines, or in rare cases, a pre-existing medical disorder.

Even though heart palpitations can be a cause of worry, they are typically not dangerous as the heart is generally working efficiently. In rare instances, heart palpitations can be a sign of some severe cardiac disorder such as arrhythmia or irregular heart beat which may need medical treatment.

Symptoms of Heart Palpitations

People who experience heart palpitations may feel the following symptoms:

  • Fluttering heartbeats
  • Heartbeats which feel as if the heart is pumping harder than normal
  • Skipped heartbeats
  • Heartbeats which are too rapid

Patients may experience heart palpitations in the neck or throat, as well as in the chest. It is possible for people to experience heart palpitations at rest or when they are active, irrespective of whether they are seated, standing, or lying down.

Heart palpitations, which are sporadic and persist for just some seconds, generally do not need any kind of treatment. People who experience recurrent heart palpitations or those with a history of cardiac conditions should consult a physician. The doctor may order cardiac monitoring tests to verify if the palpitations are arising due to some underlying heart abnormality. It is important to seek immediate medical care in case heart palpitations occur along with the following symptoms:

  • Pain or discomfort in the chest
  • Severe breathlessness
  • Fainting
  • Extreme dizziness

Heart palpitations usually do not pose any risks to development of health complications unless it is associated with some underlying cardiac abnormality. In case heart palpitations is a symptom of a preexisting cardiac disorder, then it can cause the below listed medical complications:

  • Loss of consciousness: In case the heart beats very fast, then the blood pressure may lower significantlyleading to unconsciousness or fainting. It is more likely to occur in case of an underlying cardiac condition like certain valve anomalies or congenital heart disease.
  • Stroke: Atrial fibrillation is a condition characterized by quivering of the upper cardiac chambers in place of normal beating. If heart palpitations are caused due to this condition, then blood can accumulate and result in formation of clots. When any of these clots breakaway, then it can migrate to and obstruct an artery in the brain resulting in a stroke.
  • Cardiac arrest: In rare instances, heart palpitations caused due to deadly arrhythmias can prevent the heart from beating effectively causing a cardiac arrest.
  • Cardiac failure: It can occur if the heart is ineffectively pumping blood for long durations because of an arrhythmia that is causing the heart palpitations. In some cases, the cardiac functionality can be enhanced by managing the rate of an arrhythmia which is causing cardiac failure.

Causes of Heart Palpitations

Doctors are usually unable to diagnose the exact cause of heart palpitations. However, some common causes of heart palpitations are listed below:

  • Vigorous physical activities or exercising
  • Caffeine
  • Fever
  • Nicotine
  • Strong emotional reactions like anxiety or elevated stress.
  • Intake of cough or cold medicines that have a stimulant called pseudoephedrine.
  • Hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy, menstruation, or menopause.
  • Intake of certain asthma inhaler drugs that have stimulants.

It is also important to note that heart palpitations can sometimes be a symptom of a severe underlying abnormality such as arrhythmia or hyperthyroidism i.e. an overly active thyroid gland. The former may include abnormally slow heart beats or bradycardia, tachycardia or very rapid heartbeats, or atrial fibrillation i.e. an irregular cardiac rhythm.

People may be more vulnerable to heart palpitations in the following situations:

  • Occurrence of elevated levels of stress
  • Pregnancy
  • Presence of hyperthyroidism
  • Intake of medications that have stimulants, like certain asthma or cold medicines.
  • Occurrence of regular panic attacks or some anxiety disorder.
  • Occurrence of other cardiac anomalies like a heart defect, arrhythmia, or a previous instance of heart attack.

Treatment of Heart Palpitations

Heart palpitations rarely require surgery or drug therapy, unless it is associated with an underlying cardiac defect. In normal cases, the physician will generally suggest ways in which patients can avoid the triggers that activate the heart palpitations.

In case the heart palpitations are caused due to preexisting disorders such as hyperthyroidism or arrhythmia, then the treatment is aimed at managing or correcting it.

Patients can follow the below listed steps to avoid the triggers and decrease the risk to heart palpitations:

  • Avoid stimulants: Stimulants cause the heart to beat irregularly or rapidly, leading to heart palpitations. Nicotine, caffeine, herbal supplements present in energy drinks, and certain cold medications are some examples of stimulants.
  • Decrease anxiety and stress:Elevated levels of stress or anxiety can increase the risk to heart palpitations. Patients can decrease such emotions via exercise, relaxation techniques, yoga, meditation, or talking to family members, friends, or a support group.
  • Avoid intake of illegal drugs: Cocaine and other illegal drugs can also cause heart palpitations and hence should be avoided.

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