Having palpitations is a pretty scary experience, but it’s also one that many of us have had at some point in our lives.
If you‘ve ever felt your heart beating abnormally fast, fluttering, flip-flopping, or pounding in your chest, you probably know what heart palpitations feel like.
Palpitations are not usually a sign of something serious. They can be a result of just working too hard or not getting enough sleep. Other causes include stimulants such as energy drinks, alcohol, coffee, and tobacco products.
But make no mistake. According to experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine, palpitations can also indicate a life-threatening condition that could get worse if you don‘t seek treatment immediately.
Here‘s what you need to know about heart palpitations:
What Are They?
Heart palpitations are the feelings of your heart beating too fast, “fluttering,” or “pounding” in your chest.
They occur when extra voltage is present during the contraction and relaxation phase of the heartbeat cycle. This causes abnormal, uncontrolled contractions that can be felt as a rapid or irregular heartbeat.
But is everything always obvious? Sadly not. Sometimes palpitations can feel like normal heartbeats.
According to Dr. Shephal Doshi, M.D., director of cardiac electrophysiology at Providence Saint John‘s Health Center in Santa Monica, palpitations can‘t be defined in terms of the number of heartbeats per minute.
Sanjiv Patel, M.D., a cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, adds that with palpitations, your heart may still beat at normal speeds of up to 100 beats per minute.
How Do Heart Palpitations Feel?
According to Dr. Holly S. Andersen, M.D., cardiologist, and director of education and outreach at the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, palpitations can feel a bit different for everyone.
Some people describe it as fluttering, while others say their heart feels like it‘s pounding or racing out of control. The intensity might be mild and only last a few moments, but you could also experience severe discomfort that lasts much longer.
Causes of Heart Palpitations
Potential causes of abnormal heart rhythms include:
- Stress or severe emotional upset (such as the death of a loved one)
- Injury to the chest or heart
- Drug use, especially drugs containing stimulants
- A cold/flu
- Sleep deprivation or sleep apnea
- Low blood sugar
- Intensive physical activity
- An overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism
- Hormonal changes, including periods, pregnancy, and menopause
- Blood loss
- Electrolyte abnormalities
As you can see, most causes are nothing to worry about, but in a few cases, palpitations may be associated with various heart conditions. These include:
- Mitral valve prolapse: A condition of the heart in which one or both of the miter leaflets that cover the openings between the left and right atria no longer fully seal, allowing abnormally large amounts of blood to flow in and out of the heart.
- Congenital heart disease: A general term for any disorder of the heart or blood vessels present at birth.
- Heart failure: A chronic condition in which the heart gradually weakens, making it unable to pump enough blood to meet the body‘s needs.
How Do I Stop Heart Palpitations?
Several lifestyle changes might help relieve symptoms and prevent heart palpitations. They include:
- Getting more sleep at night
- Avoiding stimulants like energy drinks/coffee before bedtime
- Eating healthy meals throughout the day and staying hydrated
- Adding magnesium supplements to your diet
- Daily exercise
When to Get Emergency Help
In most cases, heart palpitations only last a few seconds. If they last for more than a few minutes, there is likely to be an underlying issue, and you should visit a doctor as soon as possible.
If you‘re experiencing palpitations along with other concerning symptoms such as dizziness, chest pain, sweating, fainting, nausea, or fatigue, you should seek medical attention right away.
Palpitations accompanied by shortness of breath, back pain, or feeling faint can indicate more urgent life-threatening problems, such as a heart attack. In this situation, doctors recommend calling 911 immediately.