Heart palpitations: When should you worry?

Heart Health
EKG leading to heart drawing on pink background

It seems as though almost everyone has heard a cautionary tale about heart health. An unrecognized symptom, an undetected heart condition, or pushing your heart to its maximum capacity during practice or time outdoors can all produce a dangerous, and sometimes fatal, result. Stories like these have prompted awareness about heart conditions and heart health, and have also helped to increase knowledge of which symptoms to keep an eye out for.

Heart palpitations, the feeling of a rapid, fluttering, pounding, or otherwise irregular heartbeat, is one of those symptoms. When these occur during physical activity or on particularly warm days, it's a cue to slow or stop what you're doing. However, heart palpitations aren't exclusive to situations like these. Anyone can be affected by that feeling of a fluttering heart, which is why understanding the causes and concerns associated with it can help you determine whether or not to worry.

"Heart palpitations can be alarming, because your heartbeat feels abnormal," explains Richard R. McCurdy Jr., MD, Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Riddle Hospital, part of Main Line Health. "Fortunately, most palpitations are not dangerous and often can be explained by external factors."

These external factors can include exercise, emotions like stress or anxiety, or increased amounts of nicotine or caffeine. Certain medications can also trigger heart palpitations, including inhalers for asthma and over the counter cold treatments, so talk to your doctor about the potential side effects of your medications if you're concerned.

Typically, when heart palpitations are caused by factors like these, it will feel as though your heart is pumping faster or harder than usual or you will notice skipped or fluttering heartbeats. These symptoms are usually felt in your chest, but can also be felt in the throat or neck, so don't be alarmed if you notice symptoms in these places, as well.

How long do heart palpitations last?

However, if these palpitations last longer than a few seconds, or are associated with other symptoms, there may be some underlying medical concerns. If your palpitations are accompanied by dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, or chest pain, you should seek medical attention.

"Palpitations can be caused by a wide range of abnormal heart rhythms. Some of these are actually relatively common and not dangerous at all. These palpitations will be very short, no more than a couple seconds, and not accompanied by any other symptoms. However, when palpitations last a few minutes or more, or are combined with other symptoms, that's when it has the potential to be a bigger issue. It could mean that you are at risk for complications like heart failure or cardiac arrest," says Dr. McCurdy.

Although results like these are rare, it's important to understand the warning signs for serious cardiac issues like these. Reduce your risk for any heart problems by leading a healthy lifestyle. Quit smoking, eat a balanced diet and aim to exercise for 30 to 60 minutes five days per week.

This article is not a substitute for medical advice offered by your physician. If you notice repeated episodes of heart palpitations or have questions, make an appointment with your doctor, who can help you know for sure whether or not you should be concerned. Visit our website for a full list of Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologists in your area.

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