My Heart Skips a Beat: An Introduction to Heart Palpitations

By: Dr. Guru P. Mohanty

It is easy to get worried when you feel your heart skip a beat.  That feeling when your chest is pounding or your heart is racing can feel like something serious is happening.  It’s understandable that you would want to know whether or not these symptoms are dangerous or damaging to your heart in any way. 

Here’s what you need to know about heart palpitations and what might be happening when you have them.

What are Heart Palpitations?

Palpitations are a physical sensation that occurs when your heart skips a beat or your chest is pounding heavily for a few moments.  It can feel like thunder rumbling in your chest, drums pounding in your chest, or a feeling of flopping in your chest.

When you feel this rumble or flip-flop sensation in your chest, your heart may be experiencing an electrical problem, causing it to feel “off” in some way.  If you have frequent heart palpitations, you need to work with a doctor to identify where that abnormal electrical signal or short circuit originates, so that it can be treated.  They are a result of a heart rhythm abnormality, called an arrhythmia.

What to Do When You Have Heart Palpitations?

If you’re experiencing persistent heart palpitations for the first time, you’ll want to visit the emergency room or your primary care physician as soon as possible to identify an arrhythmia and to rule out any acute issues with your health.

If you have already sought treatment for heart palpitations or arrhythmia but are now experiencing severe or prolonged bouts, you should seek medical attention as quickly as possible because these palpitations may not necessarily have the same cause as previous ones.

When you’re experiencing heart palpitations in real time, sometimes it can help to hold your breath, breathe slowly to a specific number count, or perform a vagal maneuver where you hold down your lower abdominal muscles as if you are having a bowel movement.  Each of these activities can work as a short-term solution to stop the arrhythmia.

Moving Forward with Heart Palpitations

Infrequent heart palpitations can be a common occurrence.  If you are having frequent heart palpitations, especially when paired with chest pains, shortness of breath, lightheadedness or fainting, a more urgent medical intervention may be necessary.

To identify patterns in heart palpitations, patients will often wear a heart monitor, which may be up to 30 days.  Alternatively, sometimes an implanted heart monitor may be used for diagnosis.   After reviewing the results with a doctor, treatment options include medications or a procedure called a catheter ablation, which is a minimally invasive approach that either freezes or burns the electrical circuit causing the palpitations.  Occasionally devices such as a pacemaker or defibrillator may need to be considered.

It is important to work with a doctor in your treatment because there are some specific arrhythmias that can increase your chances of having a stroke, such as atrial fibrillation.

What’s the Difference Between a Heart Attack and a Heart Palpitation?

A heart attack is a serious cardiovascular event that requires quick medical attention.  A heart attack is often described as a crushing, squeezing pain, and is often a result of poor blood flow in the coronary arteries because of a blockage.  On the other hand, heart palpitations are from abnormal electrical impulses.  The difference between the two is the heart palpitations are the feeling that your heart is racing or beating irregularly whereas a heart attack is pain within your chest that can be fatal.

It can be difficult to understand heart palpitations.  In fact, the first time you hear that term might even be in a doctor’s office.  That’s why you always need to visit your doctor regularly and do your best to describe symptoms clearly.

If you think you’ve felt your heart fluttering, pounding, rumbling or flip-flopping, schedule an appointment with a cardiologist at VCS today to learn more about heart palpitations, call 804-288-4827.


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