Have you ever thought about the sound your heart makes? Its rhythmic beat is like a dance party in your body — an important one that keeps you alive and healthy.
Your heartbeat is often described as “lub dub,” which is the sound of your heart filling with blood and then pumping it out to the rest of your body. Beating between 60 to 100 times per minute, your heart is always working hard to keep your body full of the blood it needs to survive.
Sometimes, this rhythm can change for a brief moment, and you may feel your heart skip a beat. Maybe you just saw a coworker you’ve had a crush on or you open an email with an offer for your dream job. It’s normal if these moments of excitement make your heart flutter briefly.
These flutters are called heart palpitations — when your heart beats faster than normal or it skips a few beats. You might also feel overly aware of your own heartbeat. Most of the time, heart palpitations are harmless and go away on their own.
In some cases, however, there may be a medical reason behind them, called an arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm).
Even though they are common, heart palpitations can make you feel anxious and scared. Here’s when you shouldn’t worry about your heart skipping a beat — and when it may be time to see your healthcare provider.
When Your Heart Palpitations Aren’t a Cause for Concern
There are plenty of times when your heart fluttering is nothing to be concerned about. Your heart rhythm can change because of your emotional state or activity level.
It can even change because of what you’ve recently put into your body.
Some reasons you may experience heart palpitations that don’t signify a medical problem with your heart include:
- Certain emotions, such as anxiety, stress, panic or fear
- Too much caffeine
- Nicotine from smoking cigarettes or using an e-cigarette
- Illegal drugs, such as cocaine
- Diet pills
- Increased exercise
- A fever
It’s important to remember that although some of these conditions may not mean you have a heart condition, they can still be bad for your heart. For instance, smoking and using illegal drugs can increase your risk of a heart attack. To keep your heart healthy, avoid these harmful substances.
Beyond a Skipped Beat: Heart Arrhythmias
Your heart supplies blood for your entire body, so it’s directly connected to many other organs. As a result, some health conditions may cause heart palpitations that signify an abnormal heart rhythm called an arrhythmia.Heart conditions that may cause an arrhythmia include:
- Thyroid disease
- Low blood sugar
- Abnormal levels of potassium in your blood
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Low blood pressure
- Low levels of oxygen in your blood
Some medications may also cause heart arrhythmias, such as those used to treat high blood pressure, asthma, or other heart problems.
To make sure your palpitations are not a sign of something more serious, let your healthcare provider know if:
- You experience new or different palpitations
- Your palpitations are very frequent (more than 6 per minute or in groups of 3 or more)
- Your pulse is higher than 100 beats per minute (without other causes such as exercise or fever)
- You have risk factors for heart disease, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes
When Should I Seek Medical Care?
Most of the time, heart palpitations are nothing to worry about. Once that extra cup of coffee leaves your system or you’ve had a chance to rest after an intense workout, your heartbeat should go back to normal.
However, if you suddenly start experiencing heart palpitations — and you can’t connect it to any other cause — it may be a sign of a more serious heart problem, such as:
- Heart disease
- An abnormal heart valve (such as if a valve is too narrow and doesn’t let enough blood flow through or a valve is leaking)
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Cardiomyopathy (other diseases that cause your heart muscle to become larger, thickened, or rigid)
Call 9-1-1 if you have heart palpitations in addition to:
- Loss of consciousness
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Excessive sweating
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or the feeling that you might faint
- Pain or tightness in your chest
Depending on your situation, your healthcare provider may perform tests to determine what’s going on inside your heart, such as:
- An electrocardiogram (EKG), which records the electrical activity of your heart
- An echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create a picture of your heart
- A Holter monitor, which records your heart’s rhythm for 24 to 48 hours during your normal activities
Finding Your Rhythm: How to Prevent Heart Palpitations
While palpitations can be bothersome, they’re usually not a sign of anything serious. There are ways to prevent palpitations, such as avoiding known triggers like stress, alcohol, and caffeine.
Also, remember that everyone is different, and your triggers may not be the same as another person who has heart palpitations. If your heart palpitations seem to happen after drinking coffee or after certain types of exercise, then try to avoid these triggers.
If you’re concerned about your palpitations, don’t hesitate to see your healthcare provider. You know your body best, and if you feel like something is not right, get it checked out. The “lub dub” of your heartbeat shouldn’t cause anxiety — it should be a constant reminder of how your heart is working hard for you every minute of every day.