Heart Palpitations: When It's Nothing, When It's Serious
Most of the time, a heart palpitation is nothing to worry about. Find out when this symptom could mean more.
Ever feel like your heart is skipping a beat? Fluttering around inside your chest? Pounding too hard or too fast? You are probably having heart palpitations. Most of the time, heart palpitations are harmless. But, at times, they can signal an underlying health problem or a heart condition that requires immediate treatment.
Most people who have heart palpitations don't need treatment. If you have them, though, check with your doctor to see if you need treatment.
Have the following information ready for your doctor:
- Write down every time you have palpitations
- Tell the doctor:
- When they usually happen.
- How often you get them.
- How long they last.
- If your heartbeat feels slow, fast or irregular. Take your pulse if you can.
- About any food, drink, drugs or activities that seem to bring them on or make them go away.
When you have palpitations, relax as much as you can. Try breathing deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Seeking immediate help
Call 9-1-1 right away if you have any of the following along with palpitations:
- Fainting or near-fainting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or abnormal fatigue
- Chest pain, or pain in the upper back, arms, or jaw
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or indigestion
Also, seek help right away if the palpitations are new or came on suddenly and you have:
- Palpitations that are prolonged or recurrent
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Thyroid disease
- Any other chronic illness, or if you are pregnant or frail
- A family history of sudden cardiac death or heart rhythm problems
Treatment for heart palpitations, if you need it, depends on the underlying cause. Other medical conditions may need to be controlled first to stop the palpitations.
For example, if you have hormone changes due to menopause, your doctor may not suggest any treatment. If you have anemia (too few red blood cells), treating that condition could end the palpitations.
If your palpitations are:
- Prolonged or are due to a heart-related problem: You may need medicine to help your heart work better.
- Caused by an underlying structural problem, such as heart valve disease: Surgery may be an option. For a faulty valve, your doctor may suggest having it surgically repaired or replaced.
- Caused by an abnormally fast or slow heart beat (arrhythmia): Medications to control the heart rate, or sometimes a pacemaker, is needed.
A thorough medical history, physical exam, testing and cardiac monitoring may fail to show abnormalities as being the cause of palpitations. If so, you may just need to avoid situations, food and drink that can trigger them.
Anyone can have heart palpitations. But reducing the risk factors for heart disease can help your heart stay healthy. These heart-healthy practices may help reduce palpitations and prevent heart disease:
- Don't smoke.
- Cut down on caffeine.
- Limit alcohol.
- Don't use illegal drugs, such as cocaine.
- Eat a well-balanced, low-fat diet.
- Exercise regularly (check with your doctor before you start).
- Use stress management techniques, such as deep breathing and yoga.
- Keep blood pressure and cholesterol under control.