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This Month In Health
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Health and Fitness News

Skipping a Beat

Should you be concerned about heart palpitations?

Feeling an abnormal beat in your heart isn’t easy to ignore. When your heart’s been beating at the same rhythm day in and day out and all of a sudden feels like it’s skipping a beat, fluttering, racing, or pounding, you can’t help but fear the worst. Heart palpitations may happen anytime, whether you’re at rest or just finishing a workout. Besides your chest, you may also feel the abnormal rhythm in your neck or throat.

Could you have a heart problem that needs immediate attention? While most heart palpitations are harmless, some are cause for concern. Here’s what can cause palpitations, when to seek medical care, and how palpitations are treated.

Why They Happen

In some cases, the cause of abnormal beats can’t be determined. Other times, they’re the result of intense exercise, depression, anxiety, stress, or panic attacks. Fever can cause palpitations as can hormonal changes that come with pregnancy, menstruation, or menopause. Stimulants such as nicotine, caffeine, amphetamines, and cocaine are also culprits. Medications that contain the ingredient pseudoephedrine used to treat colds and coughs, asthma inhalers, or diet pills could be to blame. Sometimes, foods high in monosodium glutamate, sodium, or nitrate can trigger palpitations.

But the root cause isn’t always so benign. More serious conditions that cause heart palpitations include thyroid disease (hyperthyroidism), dehydration, anemia, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, or an electrolyte imbalance.

Additionally, palpitations may indicate an underlying heart condition that requires treatment. An arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm that makes the heart beat too fast, too slow, or irregularly), coronary artery disease, prior heart attack, heart failure, heart muscle conditions, or heart valve problems can all cause palpitations.

When to See the Doctor

Unless your palpitations can clearly be traced to one of the harmless causes listed above, make an appointment to see your doctor to rule out any more serious conditions. Regardless of the suspected cause, if your palpitations are accompanied by dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting, seek emergency medical attention.

Tests to Diagnose a Heart Condition

To diagnose the cause or severity of heart palpitations, your doctor will order one or more tests. Sometimes all that is required for a definitive diagnosis is a simple blood test. Other times, you may need an electrocardiogram, chest X-ray, echocardiogram (an ultrasound of your heart), or a holter monitor that records your heart’s electrical signals over a period of days.

How to Prevent Palpitations

Sometimes, palpitations come out of nowhere and go away on their own. If your doctor finds no underlying medical cause, there are normally lifestyle changes you can make to reduce the occurrence of palpitations. When stress or anxiety are at the root, practice relaxation exercises, get regular exercise, do tai chi or yoga, or work with a therapist to do biofeedback or guided imagery. You’ll also want to avoid medications, supplements, foods, drinks, or illegal drugs that may be triggering your palpitations.

In cases when lifestyle changes don’t stop palpitations, your doctor may prescribe medications. Calcium-channel blocker or beta-blocker medications are frequently used to treat palpitations. If an underlying heart condition is diagnosed, you will be treated for that condition.

Risk of Complications

Untreated heart palpitations caused by a heart condition can lead to health complications down the road. A rapid pulse can cause your blood pressure to drop and make you faint. Dangerous arrhythmias can lead to cardiac arrest. Palpitations due to atrial fibrillation can cause blood clots to form and increase your risk of stroke. And chronic arrhythmia can lead to heart failure. For these reasons, never ignore heart palpitations, but make an appointment to see your doctor.