Feeling like your heart just fluttered or skipped a beat are cute terms for when you’re in love. But if you actually feel these things in your heart, the medical term is heart palpitations.
With heart palpitations, you can also feel like your heart is pounding or racing.
“Heart palpitations can cause uncomfortable and unnerving sensations in your chest, throat, or neck,” says Kashif Chaudhry, MD, an electrophysiologist at UPMC. “Most of the time, they’re nothing to worry about, but sometimes there’s an underlying medical reason.”
Here’s what you need to know about heart palpitations and heart health.
What Causes Heart Palpitation?
Heart palpitations are common, and many things can trigger them. In most cases, they are situational and not serious.
Common causes of heart palpitations
Many things can trigger heart palpitations, including:
- Anxiety, worry, or panic attacks.
- Too much caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine.
- Intense exercise.
- Hormonal changes during pregnancy.
- Diet pills.
- Decongestant medications, such as phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine.
- Medications used to treat asthma, heart problems, or high blood pressure.
- Illicit drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine.
Serious underlying causes of heart palpitations
Sometimes, however, heart palpitations are a sign or symptom of a serious health problem. These include:
- An abnormal heart rhythm known as arrhythmia.
- Heart disease, heart attack, or heart failure.
- Abnormal heart valve, such as mitral valve prolapse.
- Low levels of blood oxygen or blood sugar.
- Abnormal levels of blood potassium.
- Thyroid disease.
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What’s a Normal Heat Beat?
A normal heart beats 60 to 100 times per minute when you are at rest. A resting heart rate is your heart pumping the lowest amount of blood your body needs because you’re awake but not exercising or active.
If you exercise regularly or take medications to slow your heart, your resting heart rate may be below 60 beats per minute.
What’s not normal?
But your heart can also beat too fast or too slow. When your resting heart rate is more than 100 beats per minute, that’s too fast (tachycardia). When your resting heart rate is slower than 60 beats per minute, that’s too slow (brachycardia).
Your heart can also skip a beat or have extra beats.
When Should You See a Doctor for Heart Palpitations?
“Heart palpitations can leave you feeling stressed and anxious. Your doctor can give you a complete exam to find out what’s causing your heart palpitations and the best way to treat them,” says Dr. Chaudhry.
“Most of the time they’re nothing to worry about. But because your heart is involved, it’s important to talk to your doctor to make sure nothing else is going on.”
You should call your doctor right away if you:
- Are having heart palpitations for the first time.
- Feel extra heart beats often. Watch out for extra beats that come in groups of three or more — or that happen six or more times per minute.
- Have heart disease risk factors, including diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure.
- Have new, different, or worsening heart palpitations.
- Have a resting pulse of more than 100 beats per minute without exercise, fever, or anxiety.
To determine the cause of your heart palpitations, your doctor may run the following tests:
- Electrocardiogram, or EKG.
- Stress tests.
- Holter monitor test. (This is an at-home device you wear to record your heart’s electrical activity for 24 hours.)
- Electrophysiology study, or EPS.
- Coronary angiography.
Call 911 or get immediate medical attention if you:
- Feel dizzy, confused, or lightheaded
- Have trouble breathing.
- Feel shortness of breath.
- Feel like you may faint or lose consciousness.
- Have chest pain or tightness.
- Have unusual sweating.
Treatment for Heart Palpitations
Most heart palpitations go away on their own.
Treatment for heart palpitations will depend on what’s causing them.
If your doctor determines that there’s no serious underlying cause for your heart palpitations, then prevention will include lifestyle changes. That means getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet, says Dr. Chaudhry.
To prevent heart palpitations, avoid common lifestyle triggers like smoking and excess caffeine and alcohol. “It’s also important to get a handle on stress. Deep relaxation techniques can help you manage stress,” says Dr. Chaudhry.
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.