Heart palpitations are typically a symptom of coronary artery disease. However, this medical condition is not the only one known to cause palpitations, as these can sometimes be harmless. By understanding how and when heart palpitations occur, you can get a better grasp of how to distinguish harmless heart palpitations from ones that could be a sign of a life-threatening condition.
The feel and symptoms of heart palpitations
When the heart skips or adds a beat that’s distinguishable, that sensation is called a palpitation. Normally, people who have heart palpitations become very aware of their heart beating at an abnormal rate.
Causes of heart palpitations
In general, heartbeats should be similar to breaths: something that your body does constantly and subconsciously, without you being aware of it. The good news that the majority of people in this world experience heart palpitations at some point, and that these are absolutely harmless. They usually resolve on their own, without any external intervention.
However, there are also cases when heart palpitations are caused by an underlying medical condition, which could be anything from a diagnosed heart disease, heart valve problems, or even arrhythmia.
When heart palpitations come from other causes, they don’t pose a serious health threat. They can make an appearance when you’re dehydrated, tired, have been drinking too much coffee or smoking too many cigarettes, are going through hormonal changes, are anemic, if you have low blood sugar, if you’re going through a sad, anxious, depressed, or stressful period. People who consume recreational drugs such as amphetamines or cocaine are also likely to experience heart palpitations.
Heart palpitations: What complications can occur?
If you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease or other heart problems and are also experiencing palpitations, that’s your cue to go see a doctor. In fact, heart disease is the only major concern and complication that’s linked to palpitations. Some of the complications of this combo include:
- Cardiac arrest can be one of them. Heart palpitations can sometimes be linked to arrhythmias, which are irregular heartbeats that, in time, can prevent the heart from functioning normally.
- Some people with coronary artery disease who experience heart palpitations can faint. This is because the blood pressure drops, causing you to lose consciousness.
- Stroke is another potential complication of heart palpitations. Atrial fibrillation, which is caused by the heart’s upper chambers quivering instead of beating normally, can be the cause of these palpitations. It makes the blood pool, leading to the formation of blood clots. These are dangerous because they block blood flow to the brain, which can cause a stroke.
- Ultimately, a heart palpitation that’s the result of something as problematic as coronary artery disease can lead to heart failure. This occurs when the heart is constantly pumping inefficiently.
Heart palpitations: What are the risk factors?
Having a heart condition such as coronary artery disease is one of the major risk factors of palpitations. However, there are other categories of people who are more likely to have heart palpitations although, in the following cases, these aren’t life-threatening:
- Blood loss can cause heart palpitations, making women who are on their period more likely to have them.
- Pregnant or menopausal women will experience hormonal fluctuations that can also cause palpitations.
- People who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, or are afraid of something will most likely have their heart beat faster.
- Heart palpitations are also likely to occur in people who are taking specific classes of drugs, such as those for asthma or some cold medications.
- Hyperthyroidism, a medical condition caused by an overactive thyroid gland, can lead to heart palpitations.
Diagnosing heart palpitations
If you suspect that your palpitations may be caused by a more serious heart problem, do not hesitate to see a cardiologist. With a series of tests, these specialists can determine if there is a heart problem that might be causing these palpitations. Such tests include:
- Electrocardiograms are the go-to test for most doctors who want to check if their patients have a heart condition. This non-invasive test involves placing a series of patches on your chest, which are connected to a monitor that checks the electrical impulses of your heart. This can help detect an abnormal heart rhythm.
- Holter monitors are devices that your doctor makes you wear (typically for 24 hours), to see how your heart palpitations evolve throughout the entire day. Electrocardiograms are short in duration, and your heart palpitations might not “make an entrance” while you’re in the doctor’s office. In this case, a Holter monitor can help.
- Echocardiograms are another type of non-invasive tests that take an ultrasound of the chest to see how your heart is functioning. With the help of ultrasound waves, doctors can record echoes that create moving images on a monitor.
- Event recorders can help detect what an electrocardiogram and a Holter monitor might miss. The event recorder can be worn over a longer period of time, and it requires the wearer to push a button to record the heart’s activity whenever they feel palpitations.
If your heart is in good health, your heart palpitations will go away without intervention, although sometimes you may be required to find the trigger and fix it. For instance, if you notice any heart palpitations when you’re taking recreational drugs, avoid them as much as possible. In other cases, palpitations can’t be avoided.