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Are Your Heart Palpitations Normal or a Sign of Something Serious?

stethoscope over heartbeat chart

When to Be Concerned About Your Heart Skipping Beats

Contributed by Sally Bowman RN, quality care coordinator at Network Health

We’ve all experienced the sensation of a skipping heartbeat. Understandably, it can be cause for concern. An irregular heartbeat can sometimes be a sign that something serious is wrong, but it can also be completely normal.

How do you know when to be concerned about an irregular heartbeat? It depends on accompanying symptoms and your medical history. To put you at ease, and to make sure you get the help you need when its needed, we’ll guide you through some of the different forms of irregular heartbeats, what causes them and when you should see a doctor.

Difference Between Heart Arrhythmia and Palpitations

The medical term for an irregular heartbeat is an arrhythmia. When the electrical signals that regulate your heartbeat don’t work as they should, an arrhythmia can occur, resulting in your heart beating slower or faster. It can also cause premature heartbeats, where an extra beat is thrown into your normal heartbeat rhythm. You will often be able to tell when an arrhythmia occurs, as you will feel a fluttering in your chest or notice your heartbeat speed up.

Palpitations refer to the symptom of an irregular heartbeat due to the arrhythmia. In simple terms, palpitations are sensations of a fluttering or skipped heartbeat.

When Should You Be Worried About an Irregular Heartbeat?

You know your body better than anyone else, so if you feel like your heartbeats are “irregularly irregular,” there is nothing wrong with visiting your personal doctor as a precaution. That said, heart palpitations themselves are not uncommon and are usually harmless. Whether occurring at rest or during exercise, you usually have nothing to worry about if the palpitations are infrequent and last for only a few seconds.

If you are experiencing a heartbeat that consistently feels too fast, too slow or irregular, then you’ll want to schedule an appointment with your personal doctor. Harmless heart palpitations are not ongoing, while a more serious arrhythmia is.

Additionally, if you experience any of the following symptoms in conjunction with an irregular heartbeat, seek medical attention immediately.

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Severe dizziness
  • Excessive sweating

[Read more: What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack?]

What Can Cause Heart Palpitations?

Although an arrhythmia can cause heart palpitations that should be taken seriously, there are numerous causes of heart palpitations that are not so concerning. It’s helpful to understand some of the common causes that might lead to brief heartbeat irregularity. These include the following.

Stress – Any kind of stress can cause brief heart palpitations. This includes anxiety or depression.

Caffeine – If you like your morning coffee, it may be helpful to know that the caffeine it contains can cause heart palpitations. Other stimulants like nicotine can do the same.

Exercise – A strenuous workout can cause heart palpitations. As mentioned, anything more than a brief palpitation that only lasts a few seconds should be looked at by a doctor.

Hormone Changes – Menstruation, pregnancy and menopause can all cause heart palpitations.

Heart palpitations can have many causes, and not all palpitations are cause for concern. Keep in mind, that more serious palpitations can be caused by a heart condition, leading to cardiac arrest, stroke or heart failure.

It’s important to take good care of your heart as you age, and to make sure you have the information and tools to do that, we have a variety of helpful articles on the subject. Click the link below to learn from Network Health medical experts about heart health.

A Healthy Heart, a Healthy You

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