Skipping a Beat—the Surprise of Heart Palpitations

in Heart Health Risk Factors

Hollywood and hokey love songs may talk about your heart skipping a beat, but does that happen in real life? It turns out that it does, and the causes can range from a big plate of carbs to an impending heart attack. 

Heart palpitations, or a disruption in your natural heart rhythm, are more common than you might think. There are many different kinds of these interruptions. Arrhythmia is the medical term for these little hiccups in your normal heartbeat, and they can come about from causes as benign as one too many cups of coffee or as serious as life-threatening heart disease. 

What are Heart Palpitations?

Throughout your life and throughout your day your heartbeat changes constantly. For all its changes, normally your heartbeat stays very regular, with the contractions of your heart muscles happening in a predictable rhythm. Many different conditions can interrupt this rhythm, giving rise to a set of symptoms that might be barely noticeable or could be severe and deeply concerning. 

Heart palpitations in and of themselves are not usually dangerous, though anything that affects your heart should be checked out thoroughly. Since heart arrhythmias share symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath with much more severe conditions such as heart attacks, it is important to seek medical attention if you begin experiencing symptoms. If you have been evaluated by a doctor and it is determined you have occasional heart palpitations that are not connected to serious heart disease, you may not need to seek treatment every time you feel a flutter.

No matter what the cause, it is important to see your doctor or even visit an emergency room if you find you are experiencing dizziness or shortness of breath along with heart palpitations. If you faint or feel severe chest pain, get to a hospital or call 911 immediately.

Heart Palpitations Symptoms

The symptoms of heart palpitations can be alarming, especially if you have not experienced them before. People commonly mistake symptoms for other heart problems, and may even believe they are having a heart attack. 

Common symptoms of heart palpitations are feelings that the heart is pounding, flip-flopping, fluttering, or throbbing. These feelings can center in the chest, or can sometimes be felt up into the head and neck. 

Concerns mount as symptoms combine with heart palpitations. If you experience shortness of breath, severe pain in the chest, dizziness, or fainting, you should get medical treatment immediately.

What Causes Heart Flutters?

Many different medical conditions and lifestyle factors are identified as potential causes of heart palpitations. Some of these causes, like consumption of tobacco or alcohol, can be avoided or controlled relatively easily. For some people, even dietary choices can help eliminate heart palpitations, as carb-heavy meals, monosodium glutamate (MSG), or even sodium can sometimes be a trigger for palpitations. 

The use of illegal drugs, such as amphetamines or cocaine, is often associated with heart arrhythmia, which is one of many reasons these drugs prevent serious risks to your health. It is also possible drugs you are prescribed to treat other medical conditions can affect your heart.

Other factors can be harder to change. Pregnancy is a known cause of heart flutters, and various kinds of heart conditions can also result in your heart skipping a beat. People who suffer from chronic anxiety or PTSD can experience panic attacks that sometimes include irregular heart beats or palpitations. 

There are many different kinds of abnormal heart rhythms, and some of them are clearly identified by a malfunction in a specific part of the heart. Atrial fibrillation, for example, is a rapid and irregular heartbeat caused by abnormal electrical activity in the upper chambers of the heart. Premature ventricular contraction, on the other hand, affects the lower portion of the heart, and can sometimes cause occasional irregular contractions of the lower portion of your heart. These can be worrisome, especially if they become prolonged as they can be a precursor to a lethal condition known as ventricular fibrillation. 

Prior damage to your heart from heart disease or the buildup to heart failure can also cause heart palpitations, which is why it is important to get checked out by your doctor if you begin experiencing heart palpitations. Coronary artery disease, prior heart attacks, heart valve issues, or some heart muscle problems are all potential sources of heart palpitations. As your heart tissue becomes damaged, your regular heartbeat can become interrupted in a sign of coming danger that should be taken seriously. 

Sometimes the warning signs of an oncoming heart attack can be hard to spot, which is why it is important to be regularly screened for potential heart health problems, especially if your medical history suggests you may be at risk for heart disease. The TrustCare Heart Clinic provides cardiac health screenings that can help you understand more about your heart and help you stay ahead of the curve when it comes to keeping your heart healthy. 

Diagnosing Heart Palpitations

Any heart condition requires careful and extensive medical evaluation. Your doctor will want to know as many details as possible about what you are feeling. This will include questions about how often you feel the palpitations and how long they have been going on. Your doctor will also ask questions about whether you feel lightheaded during these episodes, if you are typically doing the same activities when they occur or if you feel out of breath. 

You will almost certainly have a physical exam and blood tests done. Your doctor will likely order an electrocardiogram (or EKG) to evaluate the electrical signals that control your heart.  This is just one of many tests that can help show what is going on inside your heart, but it can be a quick way to identify some common irregular heart beats.

Even your regular doctor or healthcare provider will sometimes want the opinion of a specialist who deals with heart health. If that happens, you will be referred to a cardiologist for further evaluation or treatment. By looking at the results of your EKG, your cardiologist can quickly see the telltale patterns of different kinds of abnormal heart rhythms to look for possible problems. 

How to Stop Heart Palpitations

If you are experiencing heart palpitations, the good news is one of the best things you can do to prevent or control them requires no medical treatment at all. Stress contributes to heart palpitations by raising the level of the chemical adrenaline in your body, which can raise your heart rate and increase your blood pressure. Exercise, quitting smoking, deep breathing exercises, adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, and keeping your cholesterol in check are all ways to potentially reduce your stress and improve overall heart health.

If remedies such as relaxation, meditation, removing yourself from stressful situations, and modifying your intake of food, alcohol, and nicotine do not provide relief from ongoing heart palpitations, your doctor may put you on a form of medication called a beta blocker. These drugs, which can be used to treat a wide variety of cardiac conditions, slow down your heart rate, and improve the transmission of electrical signals in your heart to help stop palpitations. 

Don't Take Chances With Heart Palpitations 

If you have known risk factors for heart disease, you should be very careful when it comes to heart palpitations. This is especially true if you have a medical history of high blood pressure, heart attacks, or other cardiac conditions. The best case scenario is that you discover the palpitations you are experiencing are due to diet or stress, and are likely harmless. This may not be the case, though. 

Knowing what you are up against when it comes to your heart is very important. Discovering you may be on the path to a heart attack may be scary, but knowing is far better than being surprised when it is too late. Regular checkups, especially as you get older, can save your life. Taking it a step further and getting a heart screening to specifically look for problems with your heart can take the worry out of what is happening inside your chest.

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