Heart Palpitations | William G. & Mary A. Ryan Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine | Loyola Medicine

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Heart Palpitations

Overview and Facts about Heart Palpitations

The term “heart palpitations” refers to a heart condition that creates the feeling of your heart skipping a beat, fluttering or beating too fast or too hard. Heart palpitations can be felt in the chest, throat or neck. Although heart palpitations can be frightening, they are typically not harmful and usually subside on their own. Most palpitations are caused by a harmless hiccup in the heart's rhythm, and they tend to come and go. However, they sometimes indicate a problem in the heart or elsewhere in the body.

Signs and Symptoms of Heart Palpitations

In rare cases, heart palpitations can be a symptom of a more serious heart problem. If you experience any of the following signs and symptoms beyond a fluttering sensation or feeling as if your heart has skipped a beat, you should seek medical attention:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting

Causes and Risk Factors of Heart Palpitations

In the majority of cases, heart palpitations are the result of strong feelings of stress, fear or anxiety. Heart palpitations can also happen during pregnancy.

Other causes and risk factors for heart palpitations include:

  • Consuming too much alcohol, nicotine or caffeine
  • Intense physical activity
  • Medical conditions, including thyroid disease, low blood sugar, anemia, low blood pressure or dehydration
  • Medications, including diet pills, asthma inhalers, decongestants and certain treatments for underactive thyroid
  • Herbal and nutritional supplements
  • Abnormal electrolyte levels

Tests and Diagnosis of Heart Palpitations

After performing a physical examination, listening to your heart and discussing your medical history, the doctor might order tests to try to determine the exact cause of the heart palpitations. Tests can include:

  • Ambulatory telemetry — Heart monitor made of portable, lightweight equipment to record your heart's activity during your daily life.
  • Blood tests — These tests check for diseases that might affect the heart.
  • Chest X-ray — X-rays provide imagery to check the state of your lungs and heart. An MRI can accomplish this as well.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) — In this test, electrodes attached to the chest detect the electrical activity of the heart and reveal abnormalities in heart rhythm.
  • Stress test — A stress test can provide insight into your heart health by measuring how it responds to exertion.

Treatment and Care for Heart Palpitations

If there is no underlying health cause for your heart palpitations, a solid stress management plan and other lifestyle changes can help manage this heart condition. Cutting out certain foods and beverages, such as alcohol and caffeine, can help reduce the instances of heart palpitations, and avoiding medications that can act as stimulants can also help.

If the doctor can determine that a heart condition has caused the palpitations, they will prescribe medications to treat that condition. These medications can include beta-blockers or calcium-channel blockers.