Know that feeling when your heart skips a beat? It’s a fairly common sensation and may not be any cause for alarm – you might just be nervous or stressed (or if certain poets and songwriters are to be believed, falling in love). However, it could be a symptom of something more serious. A fluttering heart isn’t usually something you should be overly worried about, but it’s important to be aware of when you should contact a doctor in case it’s a symptom of a more serious problem.
What Causes Heart Palpitations?
If you’ve ever been aware of your heart beating in an unusual way, you’ve experienced a “palpitation.” Heart palpitations include a variety of sensations, including the feeling that your heart is racing or pounding, or that it is off-rhythm or skipping beats. This is most commonly noticed in the chest region but can also be felt in your throat or neck. While heart palpitations often feel unpleasant, they can be caused by a variety of factors and are not necessarily life-threatening. The most common causes of palpitations include:
- fear, stress, or anxiety
- strenuous exercise
- high intake of alcohol
- use of stimulants such as caffeine, cocaine, or amphetamines
- low potassium or blood sugar
You are more likely to have heart palpitations if you have a medical issue such as heart disease or anemia. They can also be a side effect of nicotine withdrawal.
When Are Heart Palpitations Dangerous?
In isolated cases, a fluttering heart is normal and does not indicate anything dangerous, but if you find yourself experiencing them regularly it could be a sign of atrial fibrillation (AFib) or another potentially serious heart condition. You should also watch for other symptoms which accompany palpitations, such as:
- chest pain
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- difficulty breathing
You should contact a doctor if you experience any of the above symptoms, particularly if you have a family or personal history of heart disease or other cardiac conditions.
Telling Your Doctor About Your Palpitation Symptoms
Because palpitations can appear suddenly and pass just as quickly, it can be difficult to get a handle on your specific symptoms. Being aware when heart flutters take place can help your cardiologist narrow down the cause and nature of the issue.
Take note of how the palpitations feel – is your heart pounding? Skipping beats? Does your heartbeat feel irregular? Taking your pulse when you feel palpitations can help you verify whether your heart is beating abnormally fast. You should also keep in mind the context and duration. It’s not unusual to feel your heart flutter briefly during intense exercise, but if you find the feeling lasts more than a couple minutes at a time, you should talk to a cardiologist.
What Can I Do to Reduce Heart Palpitations?
Many of the best treatments for heart palpitations are lifestyle changes that you can make on your own. Quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, improving your diet, and getting more sleep and exercise can all help. Monitor your blood sugar and make sure you’re drinking enough water. You should also tell your doctor about any medications you’re currently taking, as some may have side effects that affect your heartbeat.