Palpitations often refers to a “racing heart beat” that’s not associated with exercise. But when is this condition something normal or something serious that needs medical attention?
The feeling of skipping a beat or a racing pulse is essentially when the heart’s electrical impulses are thrown out of rhythm. Arrhythmia refers to an abnormal heart rhythm, which may feel like a fluttering or a brief pause in beats.
Tachycardia is a common type of arrhythmia in which the heart beats faster than normal while at rest. Palpitations may be diagnosed as tachycardia. An electrocardiogram, also called an ECG or EKG, is the most common tool used to diagnose tachycardia. Your doctor may order additional cardiac imaging tests, such as an echocardiogram, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or CT scan.
“Anybody that feels some palpitations should have a conversation, either with their primary care physician or with a cardiologist or with their electrophysiologist, and describe exactly what they’re feeling,” explains Mario Pascual, M.D., an electrophysiologist with Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “When we see patients with palpitations, we want to understand if we have palpitations that are causing pretty significant lightheadedness, dizziness, certainly episodes of losing consciousness — then you certainly would probably want to get checked out sooner rather than later.”
While the sensation of “feeling of being aware of your heartbeat or feeling extra beats now and then” is likely normal, you should still have a conversation about this with your primary care physician, adds Dr. Pascual, who was featured in the latest Baptist HealthTalk podcast (Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts).
Fluttering and heart palpitations can be signs of arrhythmia, including AFib (atrial fibrillation), a type of irregular heartbeat that can result in blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
In some cases, tachycardia may cause no or few symptoms or complications. But if left untreated, tachycardia can disrupt normal heart function and lead to serious complications that include heart failure, stroke and even sudden cardiac arrest or death.
The big takeaway, says Dr. Pascual, is to make sure you “always know if your heart is healthy or not.”
“And seeing a cardiologist would be extremely helpful (to determine if your heart is healthy),” he stresses. “They will likely order an ultrasound of the heart to look at the actual heart muscle and make sure that the heart muscle is beating well. And they’ll make sure that the valves are okay. That would be the most important thing. Also, knowing a family history would be important. Patients that have a strong family history of unexplained passing out or unexplained death — that would definitely be a concern.”