Most of us can recall a time when we’ve had the feeling that our heart skipped a beat, fluttering just a bit. It could have been nerves, or maybe you were caught off-guard. Whatever the reason, it is likely that it only lasted a few moments and when the feeling passed, you were left thinking, “What was that?” the reality is, when a heart flutter does occur, it can stop us in our tracks. So, in order to get to the bottom of this very common, but nonetheless mysterious conundrum, we consulted electrophysiologist Jeffrey Luebbert, MD. In this Q&A, he dives into some of the more common questions regarding heart flutters such as what to do if you experience this feeling while exercising as well as how to know if it may be a symptom of a larger issue.
Q&A with Jeffrey Luebbert about Heart Flutters
Q: Can you briefly define heart flutters and heart palpitations?
Dr. Luebbert: A heart palpitation is a feeling that the heart is fluttering, skipping a beat or beating too fast and could be a symptom of an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). A symptom is specific to an individual and each person may experience the symptom of an arrhythmia in a different way. Common symptoms of arrhythmias include a sensation that a person’s heart is beating irregularly, dizziness, lightheadedness, palpitations and passing out/loss of consciousness.
Q: If someone is exercising or running when palpitations occurs, should they stop?
Dr. Luebbert: Any change in symptoms during exercise should direct someone to be evaluated by their doctor. In general, it is recommended that if you are not feeling well when exercising slow down and stop. If you continue to feel poorly after stopping or you have an episode of dizziness, lightheadedness or ‘syncope’, which is loss of consciousness, these could be signs of a more serious problem and you should visit the closest emergency room for evaluation.
Q: Are heart palpitations caused by arrhythmias?
Dr. Luebbert: Many times heart palpitations are caused by an abnormal heart rhythm or cardiac arrhythmia. There are many different types of arrhythmias; some are harmless and no treatment is necessary, but some have the potential to be dangerous and may be associated with passing out/loss of consciousness or cause someone to die suddenly – ‘sudden death’. If a cardiac arrhythmia is the cause it needs to be followed by a medical professional, in particular a cardiologist.
Learn more about the Cardiac Arrhythmia Program at Penn
Some people experience palpitations/flutters caused by arrhythmias that are benign - meaning they will not cause serious problems, cause someone to be hospitalized or shorten their life. These arrhythmias, however, may still require treatment to control symptoms.
Other types of arrhythmias can be extremely dangerous and may cause the same symptoms or other more concerning symptoms. One symptom that is never normal is ‘syncope’. If someone passes out/has loss of consciousness, it is never normal and could be a sign of a potentially serious condition. We suggest if a symptom is new or changing then a person should have an evaluation to exclude dangerous conditions.
Q: Are there ways to stop arrhythmias?
Dr. Luebbert: There are treatments that can stop or control arrhythmias. After seeing a physician, a plan can be made and may include medical therapy or a specialized procedure called an ablation for long-term control. An ablation targets and destroys small areas of cells in the heart thought to be the source of the electrical malfunction. This procedure usually improves a patient’s heart function, exercise capacity, and quality of life. Not all patients undergoing ablation have their arrhythmia completely eliminated; however, many patients still experience greatly improved heart rate control. The result of ablation may be that drug therapy that previously failed to control heart rate may be effective once again.
There are a few things to remember if you experience heart flutters or palpitations. They may be normal - a sensation that happens to most of us at some point in our lifetime, maybe before you head on stage to give a presentation or when you are caught lovestruck. But when they last more than a few seconds, occur frequently and are accompanied by a racing heartbeat, lightheadedness, syncope, chest pain or shortness of breath, it is time to get them checked out sooner than later.
Learn more about heart palpitations causes and symptoms