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Heart palpitations; causes and treatments

We’ve all experienced those feelings when your heart ‘skips a beat’, races or pounds. These are called heart palpitations and can happen to anyone at any time, even when you are completely at rest. They do not necessarily mean there is a problem with your heart. Heart palpitation causes include a variety of lifestyle factors and minor health conditions but if you are having them very frequently, it is sensible to ask a doctor to check out your heart.

This article on heart palpitations is written by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.


What are the main causes?

Over half of all heart palpitations causes are harmless everyday diet and lifestyle factors. These include:

  • Stimulants such as caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol
  • Medicines such as asthma inhalers and thyroid treatments
  • Illegal drugs such as cocaine and marijuana
  • Strong emotions
  • Stress or panic attacks
  • Heavy physical activity

There are also a range of minor medical heart palpitations causes, including:

  • Dehydration
  • Low blood sugar
  • Abnormal electrolyte levels
  • Anaemia
  • The hormonal changes experienced in pregnancy, menstruation and menopause

What to do if you feel heart palpitations

Generally heart palpitations are harmless and occur while the heart is functioning normally. However, they can be a sign of more serious problems with the heart, and so you should always check with your GP, if only to set your mind at rest.

In many cases, your GP will assess your lifestyle for heart palpitations causes and recommend changes such as reducing your tea and coffee intake and stress reduction techniques. They may also change any medication you are on as these can often be heart palpitations causes.

Even if you have been told that your heart palpitations are nothing to worry about, you should always return to your GP if they change, become more frequent, or are accompanied by a light-headed or faint feeling, pain or breathing difficulties. When heart palpitations causes more than a momentary sensation, they certainly need to be monitored.

Tests to discover the causes

In some cases, especially where there is a family history of heart attacks, angina or other heart disease, your GP may want to investigate further to make sure there not more serious reasons for your heart palpitations. Causes that may need urgent treatment include arrhythmias and abnormal timing of the heart beat.

Investigations to pin down heart palpitations causes include:

  • An electrocardiogram (ECG) to check the rhythm of your heart
  • Blood tests to check heart and thyroid function and electrolyte levels
  • 24-hour heart monitor to check the function of your heart over a day
  • Echocardiogram to check the function of your heart and its valves

Treatment

As discussed above, the main treatment for most heart palpitations causes is to isolate and identify the source of excess stimulation and reduce or remove it from your daily life. People who find that stress and tension are their main heart palpitations causes may benefit from doing extra exercise and relaxation therapies.

If abnormal electrolyte levels are identified as one of your heart palpitations causes, you may be prescribed mineral supplements, including magnesium, potassium and calcium. Similarly, if you are found to be anaemic, you will probably have to take iron supplements.

In cases of severe heart palpitations, where there is no serious or dangerous cause, beta-blockers may be prescribed to quell the effects of adrenaline on the heart.

Arrhythmia heart palpitations causes

While many heart palpitations are perfectly natural and nothing to worry about, some heart palpitations causes can be more serious, and it may be an indicator of arrhythmia.

Arrhythmia is a condition where the natural rhythm of the heart is disrupted by either a physical problem or a problem with the electrical currents around the heart. Arrhythmia can occur in the top of the heart (the atria) or the bottom of the heart (the ventricles). The latter of these heart palpitation causes is very often a life-threatening condition.

There are several different types of arrhythmias, depending on what has disrupted the normal rhythm, and each has their own treatments. These range from a controlled stop and re-start of the heart (a therapy called cardioversion), through permanent pacemakers, to operations in which faulty areas of the heart are removed or destroyed. This rather extreme therapy is known as catheter ablation therapy.

Be sure of your heart palpitations causes

Heart palpitations happen to all of us at some time, and will often go away with minor adjustments to our diet and lifestyle. However, they can also be a warning of much more serious problems, so you should always get them checked out by your GP. It is always better to be told you have nothing to worry about, than to miss out on a potentially life-saving diagnosis.

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