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Heartbeats that are hard and fast are called palpitations. It is normal to hear or feel your heart “pounding” as it beats faster when you exercise. You may feel it when you do any physical activity. But if you have palpitations, you might feel your heart pounding while you are just sitting still or moving slowly.
Symptoms of heart palpitations
Heart palpitations may feel different to different people. They may feel like your heart is skipping a beat. They may feel like a flutter in your chest. Or they may feel like the pounding described above. You may have heart palpitations while you are sitting or while you are lying down.
What causes heart palpitations?
Many things can cause palpitations. Some causes of heart palpitations include:
- Heart-related causes. People who have an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia may have palpitations. Most of the time, palpitations and irregular heartbeats are harmless. However, sometimes the break in your heart’s normal rhythm can be a serious problem. You also may have palpitations if you have problems with the valves in your heart. Valves help move blood through the heart.
- Non-heart-related causes. Certain medicines, herbal supplements, and illegal street drugs can make your heart beat faster. Medicines that can cause palpitations include asthma inhalers and decongestants. Caffeine (found in coffee, tea, and soda), alcohol, and tobacco can also cause palpitations. People who have panic disorder feel their heart pounding when they are fearful of something. They also feel it when they are having a panic attack. Some medical conditions, such as thyroid disease and anemia, also can cause palpitations.
Sometimes the cause of palpitations cannot be found. This happens in about 1 of every 7 people who have palpitations. Palpitations in these people usually are not harmful.
How are heart palpitations diagnosed?
If your heart races when you aren’t exercising, you should see your doctor. Your doctor will examine you and ask you about any medicines you are taking. He or she will also ask about your diet and ask if you have panic attacks. Your doctor may want you to have a resting electrocardiogram test. This test keeps track of your heartbeat over a certain amount of time. Your doctor also may test your blood.
If these tests do not show what is causing your palpitations, your doctor may have you wear a heart monitor. If so, you will wear it for 1 to 14 days. This monitor will show any breaks in your heart’s rhythm. Your doctor might refer you to a cardiologist (a heart doctor) for more tests or treatment.
Can heart palpitations be prevented or avoided?
Heart palpitations cannot always be prevented or avoided. Here are some things you can do that may help prevent or avoid heart palpitations:
- Do not use illegal street drugs, such as cocaine.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco.
- Tell your doctor what medicines and herbal supplements you take.
- Tell your doctor how much alcohol you drink and if you use anything else that might cause palpitations.
- Keep track of your palpitations. Write down the time that they happen and what you were doing when they began. Give this information to your doctor. He or she may be able to use this information to determine what is causing your heart palpitations.
Heart palpitations treatment
Most of the time, heart palpitations are harmless and will go away on their own. In these cases, they do not require treatment.
However, heart palpitations can sometimes be a sign of a more serious heart condition. If you have palpitations and are also dizzy or have shortness of breath, you should seek immediate medical attention.
If your heart palpitations are related to a heart condition or other medical problem, your doctor will treat you for that. In these cases, your heart palpitations will likely go away as a result of treatment.
If your heart palpitations are a result of certain foods, beverages (alcohol and caffeine), or medications, try cutting back. Doing so could stop your heart palpitations.
Living with heart palpitations
If you can understand what is causing your palpitations, you will likely be able to manage them. You will be able to avoid known triggers, like diet pills, caffeine, and cold/cough medicines.
Palpitations that are caused by anxiety or stress are sometimes harder to control. The anxiety can cause the palpitations, and the palpitations can create anxiety. These often make up a seemingly endless cycle. In these cases, your doctor may prescribe a medication to help ease anxiety.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What is the likely cause of my heart palpitations?
- Will I need to wear a heart monitor? For how long?
- Would it be helpful if I kept track of my palpitations? Do I need to track anything else, such as what I ate or my physical activity?
- Do my heart palpitations indicate a more serious problem?
- What are some symptoms that would indicate my condition is getting worse?
- Will I need to change my lifestyle, such as diet and exercise habits?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.