Heart Palpitations: What They Are & What They Could Be A Sign Of

A rare occurrence for more individuals, heart palpitations are characterized by the unexpected fast-paced racing, fluttering, pounding of the heart. People who undergo heart palpitations might also feel as though their heart skipped or added an additional beat. While many instances merely signify a slight, benign misstep of the heart’s regular rhythm, heart palpitations can potentially signify a larger medical issue — one that might affect the heart or another area of the body. In such cases, patients might experience heart palpitations daily, which may at times be so forceful, closely resembling the feeling of myocardial infarction, or heart attack.

Symptoms of Heart Palpitations

The feelings emitted by heart palpitations can vary and different patients can experience different symptoms. A person experiencing heart palpitations might feel as though their heart is beating too rapidly, skipping beats, pounding, quickly fluttering, throbbing, murmuring, or pounding. Furthermore, some individuals even “feel palpitations as a pounding in the chest or neck; others feel them as a general sense of unease.” And these symptoms can occur whether a patient is at rest or in motion.

It is important to note that individuals who experience such symptoms on rare occasions and for short durations most likely do not have a cause for concern. However, a patient who experiences pain or discomfort in the arms, chests, upper back, neck, or jaw, severe dizziness, excessive sweating, weakness, lightheadedness, extreme shortness of breath, fainting, or confusion in conjunction with heart palpitations is advised to seek out medical attention, as such symptoms may suggest a more serious medical condition. Moreover, patients who experience frequent and worsening symptoms or who have a history of heart disease are also advised to speak with a medical professional. In these instances, doctors will often recommend heart monitoring tests to aid them in determining whether or not the heart palpitations can be attributed to a more grave heart issue.

What Causes Heart Palpitations?

There are numerous activities, events, emotions, and larger medical conditions that might bring on heart palpitations. Oftentimes, the cause of a patient’s symptoms cannot be determined. Some prevalent causes or triggers of heart palpitations are:

  • Depression
  • Arduous physical activity
  • Dehydration
  • Low potassium or blood sugar
  • Excessive consumption/use of stimulants (such as caffeine, alcohol, cold/cough medicines, nicotine, chocolate)
  • Stress, anxiety, or panic attacks
  • Hormone fluctuations (like those attributed to menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause)
  • An excess or deficiency in thyroid hormone

Heart palpitations might disappear as quickly as they appear. Some individuals might notice that simple activities such as falling asleep or standing up quickly after bending down result in heart palpitations. Nonetheless, “heart palpitations can [occasionally] be a sign of a serious problem, such as an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).” And patients suffering from particular medical conditions, like heart disease and anemia, are at an elevated risk of experiencing heart palpitations.

What Larger Medical Issues Might Heart Palpitations Signify?

Heart palpitations are generally not a cause for alarm unless they are caused by an underlying heart condition. Many symptomatic cases are prompted by the premature contractions of the heart’s atria, otherwise known as upper chambers. A feeling of a skipped heartbeat is emitted, caused by a contraction of the atria that occurs a bit too soon, which then results in the atria’s longer than normal period of rest. But more often than not, these premature contractions are entirely harmless. Similarly, early contractions of the heart’s ventricles can also lead to heart palpitations. An isolated experience, or even a handful of premature contractions in a row, is typically not a sign of a larger issue. However, if such occurrences are followed by symptoms like trouble breathing or fainting, or if occurrences are frequent, patients might be at risk of ventricular fibrillation.

Conversely, heart palpitations associated with a heart condition can result in several possible complications. For example, a rapid heartbeat may precipitate a drop in blood pressure, which may cause an individual to faint. Patients with heart problems, like congenital heart disease, or heart valve issues are particularly at risk of fainting as a result of heart palpitations. On a more serious note, palpitations brought about by atrial fibrillation — a condition which causes the upper chambers of the heart to flutter rather than properly beat — may lead to the pooling of blood which can cause clots. In the event that a clot breaks loose, clogging a brain artery, a stroke can occur. In addition, a prolonged, improper, and unavailing heartbeat, as a result of an arrhythmia, may very well trigger heart failure. In such a case, the best way to address this heart failure is to devise a method of controlling the arrhythmia, which can quite possibly improve heart function. And on rare occasions, lethal arrhythmias can provoke heart palpitations which can subsequently result in cardiac arrest.

Moreover, if the heart’s sinus node (or pacemaker) faces difficulties, heart palpitations can occur, in addition to the degeneration of the cooperation of the upper and lower chambers of the heart. And scar tissue in the heart left behind by a heart attack, injury, or valve issue might also result in heart palpitations.

Addressing the issue Head On

Individuals who have experienced heart palpitations seemingly out of nowhere are encouraged to take small actions that might address the problem. Such actions include cutting out smoking and alcohol consumption, staying hydrated, getting an adequate amount of sleep, eating well and regularly, and having one’s doctor doublecheck that the palpitations are not a side-effect of any prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, or supplements that have been taken. Patients are also advised to make strides and take up approaches to lower stress and anxiety, like meditating, doing yoga, and practicing breathwork routines.

For some patients, palpitations will persist even after implementing healthy lifestyle changes. Some individuals who suffer from symptoms might require medical intervention via prescription medication (beta-blockers) or surgical procedures. With an immense wealth of knowledge on the multitude of heart health problems that may result in heart palpitations, Dr. Beheshtian is an interventional cardiologist who has treated over 1000 patients, in New York and elsewhere. She is extremely well-informed and experienced regarding treatment paths for various types of cases, mild or complex.

Please feel free to contact Avicenna Cardiology’s office with any questions. Schedule a telehealth appointment or come in soon to see Dr. Beheshtian, who will work with you to create a care plan.

About the Author

Azadeh Beheshtian

Azadeh Beheshtian is board certified in cardiovascular disease and internal medicine by the American Board of Internal Medicine. She specializes in interventional cardiology and peripheral artery disease, with a focus on women’s heart health.