Heart Palpitations - Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

woman having palpitations

Palpitations describe the sensation of feeling your own heart beating. They often feel like a fluttering, pounding, a thud or movement in your chest, which you may feel in your neck or through your ear when you are lying down.

Should I be worried about my palpitations?

Palpitations are common and for most people are harmless, but they can be very unpleasant. They may happen when you have over exerted yourself, for example through vigorous exercise, or when you are feeling particularly anxious or stressed. They may also happen when you are doing nothing in particular, like watching TV.

Some heart conditions may cause palpitations and you should visit your GP if:

  • your palpitations last a long time, don't improve or get worse
  • your palpitations cause you to have symptoms such as sudden dizziness, or feeling short of breath
  • you have a history of heart problems
  • you're concerned about the palpitations.

Some common types of abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) which cause palpitations include:

What can trigger palpitations?

Stimulants such as these can trigger palpitations:

  • alcoholcoffee and cigarette

  • caffeine

  • certain medicines (both prescription and over-the-counter)

  • recreational drugs

  • tobacco.

Palpitations can also be triggered by emotional and psychological factors such as:

  • excitement

  • stress, anxiety, and nervousness

  • panic attacks.

What are ectopic beats?

Ectopic beats are early (premature) or extra heartbeats which can cause you to have palpitations. They happen when an impulse usually released from your heart’s own natural pacemaker (the sinus node) causes an ‘extra’ or early heartbeat somewhere else along the heart’s electrical system. This can lead to a short pause before or after the extra beat, giving you the sensation of a ‘missed’ beat.

Ectopic beats are usually harmless and do not mean you have a heart condition. They generally require no treatment unless they occur very often or are troublesome.

The two most common types of ectopic beats are:

  • Premature atrial contraction (PAC), where the early electrical impulse occurs in the atria (the upper chambers of your heart).
  • Premature ventricular contraction (PVC), where the early electrical impulse occurs in the ventricles (the lower chambers of your heart).

Will I need any tests?

ECG test

If you’re concerned about palpitations, go and see your GP. They will arrange for you to have an ECG (electrocardiogram) to check your heart rate and rhythm. 

If your ECG shows an abnormality, or your symptoms continue to bother you, you may need to have further tests or heart monitoring over a longer time period.

Will I need treatment?

Whether or not you need treatment will depend on the underlying cause of your palpitations and how severe your symptoms are. Avoiding the triggers of palpitations and ectopic beats may help. Medicines, such as beta blockers, may be prescribed to control your heart rate and rhythm.

You may be referred to a doctor who specialises in heart rhythm disturbances (an electrophysiologist), especially if you already have heart disease or your doctor thinks you may have an underlying heart condition.

Want to find out more?

Heart rhythms booklet

This booklet includes information on both normal and abnormal heart rhythms. It explains what palpitations are, what ectopic beats are, the different types of abnormal heart rhythms, the tests used to diagnose the problem and the treatments you might need.



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