Heart Palpitation Symptoms: What Do They Mean?
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A heart palpitation can feel a little like your heart just skipped a beat, or like it’s racing much faster than normal. It can be terrifying if you’ve never experienced one, or for those that experience very strong palpitations, it can feel as if you’re having a heart attack.
What is a Heart Palpitation? How Do I Know if I Have One?
A heart palpitation can be caused by various triggers, and most go away on their own. It’s important to stay calm and remember that heart palpitations are both common, and most usually harmless.1
The vast majority of heart palpitations are quite literally a “hiccup” in your heart’s rhythm but they can feel quite different to different people. They may be experienced as a flutter, a strange murmur, a sense of unease, or a pounding in one’s heart. You may also feel them in your neck or throat.2
Although heart palpitations are very often harmless, it’s always best to rule out more serious problems with the heart first. If you experience frequent palpitations it’s always best to visit your doctor for a check-up. Especially if you feel dizzy, have tightness in your chest, or trouble breathing.3
Understanding How The Heart Works
Your heart is one big, sophisticated electrical system.
When your heart beats, an electrical signal travels from the heart’s upper right chamber to the upper left chamber, then through the heart’s “electrical wiring” to the two lower chambers. As the electrical signal passes to these lower chambers (ventricles) it contracts the heart, pumping out blood, and represents one heartbeat. 3
Whenever there is any disturbance in this perfectly synchronized rhythm, the heart asks for a “do-over” and starts again at that top-right chamber – it literally resets and starts again. That reset can feel like your heart is skipping a beat, but in reality it’s something of an extra beat.4
What Causes Heart Palpitations?
There are many reasons that you may experience heart palpitations and most are not anything to panic about. Let’s take a look at some of the triggers:
- Stress, Anxiety and Nerves
When you’re stressed and anxious it can affect your entire body. You sweat, your heart rate races and, for some, it can feel like a heart attack. Anxiety, and especially panic attacks, can indeed cause a disruption in the electrical signaling of your heart. But things get even more interesting in reverse, where heart palpitations can actually cause a panic attack. So do see a doctor with any concerns even if you think it’s “only” anxiety.5
There is a phenomenon known to cardiologists as “holiday heart syndrome”, where they witness relatively healthy people consuming more alcohol over the holiday period and suddenly developing an abnormal heart rhythm. This is because alcohol can stimulate the heart.6
But even moderate amounts of alcohol may be cause for concern. One Swedish study, over 12 years, found that as little as 1-3 drinks a day can increase your chances of atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a common cardiac “arrhythmia”, or heart rhythm problem, but over time it comes with increased risks of stroke, heart failure, and dementia.7
- Exercise and Dehydration
Exercise makes your heart work harder and for some people that may appear as heart palpitations. It also dehydrates you (if you’re not compensating with enough water) and dehydration is another leading cause of palpitations. How? Well, your blood contains water and without enough water it gets too thick. Thicker blood is harder for the heart to pump and so it starts to work harder. Both of these issues, either individually or together, are forcing your heart to work harder and can therefore lead to palpitations.8
Quick Tip: Dark yellow urine or a climbing pulse are good signs to reach for a big glass of water.
- Medical Conditions and Medications
Before we talk about cardiac conditions, there are several other medical conditions that could be causing your heart palpitations. These include: overactive thyroids, anemia, low blood sugar, fevers, blood loss, shock, pregnancy, and menopause. And needless to say, it’s a good idea to lose weight while we’re on the subject.
Medications can also cause palpitations. Some of the most common include: asthma inhalers, beta blockers (for high blood pressure), thyroid medications, cough and cold formulas. If your medications are affecting your heart continuously you should talk to your doctor about possible alternatives.10
- A Cardiac Condition
A problem with your heart rhythm is known as an arrhythmia. Arrhythmic heart conditions that may be causing your palpitations include:
Atrial fibrillation – The most common heart rhythm problem, though generally not life threatening. Atrial fibrillation can be very uncomfortable and can cause persistent heart flutters, dizziness, fatigue, and breathlessness. Your doctor will want to monitor you if you have atrial fibrillation as you may be at a greater risk of stroke and heart failure.11
Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT) – This condition causes episodes of an abnormally fast heart rate, but the gaps between heart beats is normally steady and regular. An episode is usually harmless and will come back under control on its own. However if it’s accompanied by shortness of breath or dizziness you should always see your doctor immediately.12
Ventricular Tachycardia – If associated with heart disease, ventricular tachycardia can be extremely serious and result in loss of consciousness and even cardiac arrest.13
Listen to your Heart
The most important thing that you can do for your heart is to listen to the clues. If you are consistently having palpitations (and it wasn’t just a one-off) then you should absolutely talk to your doctor. They’ll be able to reassure you and investigate whatever may be causing it.
One other thing. It’s important to recognize that coffee habits can cause heart palpitations.14 So, take it easy on the caffeine! Perhaps a glass of Dr. Gundry’s Heart Defense instead?