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What Causes Palpitations?

A heart palpitation is the sensation that your heart has skipped a beat or added an extra beat. It may feel like your heart is racing, pounding, or fluttering. You may become overly aware of your heartbeat. This sensation can also be felt in the neck, throat, or chest. It’s also possible that your heart rhythm can change during the palpitations.

Most heart palpitations are harmless and resolve on their own without treatment. But in rare cases, heart palpitations can indicate a serious condition.

Causes of heart palpitations

Possible causes of heart palpitations include:

  • strenuous exercise
  • caffeine
  • nicotine from tobacco products such as cigarettes and cigars
  • stress
  • anxiety
  • fear
  • panic
  • dehydration
  • hormonal changes, including pregnancy
  • electrolyte abnormalities
  • low blood sugar
  • anemia
  • overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism
  • low levels of oxygen or carbon dioxide in the blood
  • blood loss
  • shock
  • a fever
  • over-the-counter (OTC) medications, including cold and cough medications, herbal supplements, and nutritional supplements
  • prescription medications, including beta-blockers, asthma inhalers, and decongestants
  • illegal drugs, such as amphetamines and cocaine
  • heart disease
  • arrhythmia, or an irregular heart rhythm
  • abnormal heart valves
  • smoking

Most heart palpitations are harmless, but they can indicate you have an illness when you also have:

  • an arrhythmia
  • a diagnosed heart disease
  • heart disease risk factors
  • a defective heart valve

When to get immediate medical attention

Seek medical attention right away if you have heart palpitations and a diagnosed heart problem. You should also seek medical attention if you have palpitations that occur with other symptoms such as:

  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • lightheadedness
  • fainting
  • a loss of consciousness
  • confusion
  • difficulty breathing
  • excessive sweating
  • pain, pressure, or tightening in your chest
  • pain in your arms, neck, chest, jaw, or upper back
  • a resting pulse rate of more than 100 beats per minute

These could be symptoms of a more serious condition.

Diagnosing the cause of heart palpitations

The cause of heart palpitations can be very difficult to diagnose, especially if the palpitations don’t occur while you’re in the doctor’s office.

Your doctor will conduct a thorough physical exam to identify a cause. Be prepared to answer questions about your

  • physical activities
  • stress levels
  • prescription medication use
  • OTC medication and supplement use
  • health conditions

If necessary, your doctor may refer you to a heart specialist called a cardiologist. Tests to help rule out certain diseases or heart problems include:

  • blood tests
  • urine tests
  • a stress test
  • a recording of the heart’s rhythm for 24 hours using a machine called a Holter monitor
  • an ultrasound of the heart, or an echocardiogram
  • an electrocardiogram
  • a chest X-ray
  • an electrophysiology study to check your heart’s electrical function
  • a coronary angiography to check how blood flows through your heart

Treatment for heart palpitations

Treatment depends on the cause of your palpitations. Your doctor will need to address any underlying medical conditions.

Most of the time, the doctor isn’t able to find the cause and they aren’t able to provide treatment.

If your palpitations are due to lifestyle choices such as smoking or consuming too much caffeine, cutting down or eliminating those substances may be all that you need to do. Ask your doctor about alternative medications or treatments if you think medication may be the cause.

Preventing heart palpitations

If your doctor tells you that treatment isn’t necessary, you can take these steps to decrease your chance of getting palpitations:

  • Try to identify your triggers so that you can avoid them. You can do this by keeping a log of your activities, as well as the foods and beverages you eat and noting when you get palpitations.
  • If you’re anxious or stressed, try relaxation exercises, deep breathing, yoga, or tai chi.
  • Limit or stop your intake of caffeine.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco products.
  • If medication is causing palpitations, ask your doctor if there are any alternatives.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Stick to a healthy diet.
  • Try to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels under control.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Ann Pietrangelo
Medically reviewed on: Mar 08, 2017: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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