Heart Palpitations

Overview

What are heart palpitations?

Heartbeats that are hard and fast are called palpitations (say: pal-pit-ay-shuns). It is normal to hear or feel your heart “pounding” as it beats faster when you exercise or do other physical activities. But if you have palpitations, you might feel your heart pounding while you are just sitting still or moving slowly.

Causes & Risk Factors

What causes heart palpitations?

Many things can cause palpitations. Some causes of heart palpitations include the following:

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.

  • Heart-related causes. People who have an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia may have palpitations. (Arrhythmia is a change in the rhythm of your heartbeat.) 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 or having a panic attack. Some medical conditions, such as thyroid disease and anemia, also can cause palpitations.

Diagnosis & Tests

How will my doctor find out what is causing my palpitations?

Your doctor will examine you and ask you about any medicines you are taking, your diet and 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 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.

Prevention

What can I do to help prevent 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, 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.

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?

Citations