What are Heart Palpitations?
Heart palpitations are sensations of fluttering, pounding, or heart racing. They may feel like the heart is beating quickly or irregularly, possibly with skipped beats. This sensation may also be felt in the throat or neck, and it can last seconds or minutes.
Heart palpitations are common and can be brought about by factors such as stress or medication. Heart palpitations are usually harmless, but on rare occasions, they may be caused by more serious heart conditions and require further treatment.
Signs & Symptoms of Heart Palpitations
You may experience signs and symptoms of heart palpitations during rest or physical activity. Some people notice symptoms after eating certain foods.
Common symptoms of heart palpitations include feelings that the heart is:
- Beating too quickly
- Skipping beats
These symptoms may also be felt in the throat or neck. While heart palpitations alone are usually harmless, you should seek immediate medical attention if you’re also experiencing the following symptoms:
- Chest discomfort
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Dizziness or light-headedness
What Causes Heart Palpitations?
Common causes of heart palpitations include:
- Stress, anxiety, and/or panic attacks - Stress and anxiety can cause the release of hormones like adrenaline that increase heart rate and blood flow. A sudden change in heart rate can result in heart palpitations.
- Vigorous physical activity - When the body is undergoing strenuous physical activity, heart rate will increase to pump more oxygen-rich blood to the muscles. This replenishes the oxygen used during exercise, but the increase in heart rate can result in palpitations.
- Use of stimulants - Stimulants (including caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamines) can constrict blood vessels, which increases blood pressure and results in an elevated heart rate, possibly resulting in palpitations
- Certain medications - Some cold and cough medicines contain pseudoephedrine, which acts as a stimulant and therefore has the same effects mentioned above. Certain prescription drugs, including asthma inhalers containing albuterol, can cause heart palpitations.
- Nutritional supplements - Certain dietary supplements such as bitter orange, ephedra, ginseng, hawthorn, and valerian can cause an irregular heartbeat or an increase in heart rate, possibly resulting in heart palpitations
- Specific types of food - Foods high in caffeine, such as chocolate and coffee, as well as foods high in sugar and carbohydrates, cause blood pressure to increase and could result in heart palpitations. The same effect can be caused by foods high in tyramine, such as salami, aged cheeses, sauerkraut, and soy sauce.
- Abnormal electrolyte levels - Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium, potassium, and calcium that help us maintain proper hydration levels. An imbalance of electrolytes can result in dehydration which can cause rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, or low blood pressure. Such changes can cause palpitations. A balanced diet of salt, sugar, and water will help maintain normal electrolyte levels.
- Fever - When illness causes fever, the body increases circulation and energy usage to fight infection. This increases heart and breathing rates, which can result in palpitations.
- Medical conditions – Some conditions that affect blood pressure and heart rate can cause palpitations. Examples of such conditions include iron-deficiency anemia, arrhythmias (having an irregular heart rhythm), and irregular thyroid hormone levels (producing too much or too little thyroid hormone).
- Hormonal changes - Changes in estrogen levels during menstruation, menopause, or pregnancy can result in changes in blood flow and heart rate, possibly causing palpitations
- Lack of sleep - Poor sleeping habits and/or waking up abruptly can cause a spike in heart rate, possibly resulting in palpitations
- Pregnancy - Pregnancy can cause bodily changes that result in heart palpitations
Heart palpitations and pregnancy
During pregnancy, the amount of blood in the body increases by about 50%, and the heart must work harder to pump blood around the mother’s body and the baby. Since the heart is working harder, it’s common for heart palpitations to occur.
As babies grow, they will need even more blood to provide them with their necessary nutrients. Heart palpitations are particularly common during the third trimester (when babies are at their largest).
Palpitations during pregnancy are usually harmless and will often stop after childbirth. Though they typically don’t require treatment, a doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to help alleviate heart palpitations in pregnant people. These changes may include stress-relieving techniques, drinking more water, and limiting caffeine, sugar, or fat intake.
If a heart condition is the cause of the palpitations, then additional treatment may be recommended. If you’re pregnant, seek immediate medical help if heart palpitations are accompanied by chest pain, dizziness, or difficulty breathing.
Multiple factors may increase your risk of experiencing heart palpitations. Risk factors include:
- Medications that contain stimulants - Certain over-the-counter and prescription medications, including some cold or asthma medicines, may contain stimulants which can increase your risk of heart palpitations
- Overactive thyroid gland - Also known as hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid gland can cause heart palpitations due to increased thyroid hormones in the body. This can increase the force and rate at which your heart beats.
- Arrhythmias - Irregular heart rhythms that can cause the heart to beat too quickly or too slowly and may result in heart palpitations
- Structural heart disease - Defects or degradation of the heart’s wall, valves, or chambers can increase the risk of heart palpitations. This condition may be present in individuals from birth or can develop as a person ages.
- Previous heart attack - Damage to the heart from previous heart attacks may increase your risk of developing heart palpitations
- Previous heart surgery - Individuals who have had heart surgery previously are more likely to experience heart palpitations from surgical stress on the body
- Stress - Stress increases the amount of adrenaline released into the body, which can spike your heart rate. Individuals who are stressed or experience chronic stress are more likely to develop heart palpitations.
- Anxiety disorders - Individuals with anxiety disorders are at an increased risk of suffering from heart palpitations due to the body’s physical response to chronic stress
- Pregnancy - People who are pregnant may experience heart palpitations due to increased blood in the body and changes in hormone levels
Heart palpitations and COVID-19
Despite primarily being a respiratory illness, it’s been shown that COVID-19 can negatively impact the heart. Though studies are ongoing, some results indicate that many individuals who have been infected with COVID-19 experience inflammation of the heart muscle, or myocarditis, even months after contracting the virus.
It is important to contact your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms such as heart palpitations after infection.
Methods for addressing heart palpitations vary, and the root cause must be determined to find the right treatment for each person. Some methods that may help prevent heart palpitations include:
- Reducing stress
- Limiting caffeine intake
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Not smoking
- Avoiding the use of recreational drugs (such as marijuana, cocaine, or amphetamines)
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding foods that cause palpitations
- Maintaining healthy blood pressure
- Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels
Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Heart Palpitations Care
NewYork-Presbyterian’s team of cardiovascular specialists is dedicated to all of your heart care needs. We’re here to provide you or your loved ones with compassionate, individualized treatment. Call today to make an appointment.