Ectopic heartbeats are small changes in a heartbeat that is otherwise normal. These changes lead to extra or skipped heartbeats. Often there is not a clear cause for these changes. They are mostly harmless.
The two most common types of ectopic heartbeats are:
- Premature ventricular contractions (PVC)
- Premature atrial contractions (PAC)
PVB (premature ventricular beat); Premature beats; PVC (premature ventricular complex/contraction); Extrasystole; Premature supraventricular contractions; PAC; Premature atrial contraction; Abnormal heartbeat
Sometimes ectopic heartbeats are seen with:
- Changes in the blood, such as a low potassium level (hypokalemia)
- Decrease in blood supply to the heart
- When the heart is enlarged
Ectopic beats may be caused or made worse by smoking, alcohol use, caffeine, stimulant medicines, and some street drugs.
Ectopic heartbeats are rare in children without heart disease that was present at birth (congenital). Most extra heartbeats in children are PACs. These are almost always harmless.
In adults, ectopic heartbeats are common. They are most often due to PACs or PVCs. Your health care provider should look into the cause when they are frequent. Most of the time no treatment is needed.
- Feeling your heartbeat (palpitations)
- Feeling like your heart stopped or skipped a beat
- Feeling of occasional, forceful beats
Note: There may be no symptoms.
Exams and Tests
A physical exam may show an occasional uneven pulse. If the ectopic heartbeats DO NOT occur very often, your provider may not find them during a physical exam.
Blood pressure is most often normal.
An ECG will be done. Often, no further testing is needed when your ECG is normal and the symptoms are not severe or worrisome.
If your doctor wants to know more about your heart rhythm, he or she may order:
- A monitor that you wear that records and stores your heart rhythm for 24 to 48 hours (Holter monitor)
- A recording device that you wear, and records your heart rhythm whenever you feel a skipped beat
An echocardiogram may be ordered if your doctor suspects problems with the size or structure of your heart are the cause.
The following may help reduce ectopic heartbeats for some people:
- Limiting caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco
- Regular exercise for people who are inactive
Most ectopic heartbeats DO NOT need to be treated. The condition is only treated if your symptoms are severe or if the extra beats occur very often.
The cause of the heartbeats, if it can be found, may also need to be treated.
In some cases, ectopic heartbeats may mean you are at greater risk for serious abnormal heart rhythms, such as ventricular tachycardia.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if:
- You keep feeling the sensation of your heart pounding or racing (palpitations).
- You have palpitations with chest pain or other symptoms.
- You have this condition and your symptoms get worse or DO NOT improve with treatment.
Fang JC, O'Gara PT. History and physical examination: an evidence-based approach. In: Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 10.
Olgin JE. Approach to the patient with suspected arrhythmias. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 62.
- Last reviewed on 5/20/2018
- Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is the first of its kind, requiring compliance with 53 standards of quality and accountability, verified by independent audit. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial process. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics (www.hiethics.com) and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.