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Heart palpitations: Should you worry?
Know when to relax, when to get help

» Assessing the problem

Keeping the beat

To help prevent palpitations and the worry and stress they can cause, try these self-care measures:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Cut back on caffeine (from soda, coffee, tea and medicines).
  • Drink less alcohol.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Avoid activities that seem to cause the palpitations.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
  • Eat a well-balanced, low-fat diet.
  • Learn to practice relaxation techniques such as visualization and breathing exercises.
  • Ask your doctor about treatments to reduce anxiety or panic attacks.

When to get help

Seek immediate medical help if your pulse rate is more than 100 beats per minute when you’re not physically active or if palpitations are accompanied by the following symptoms:

  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness or light-headedness
  • chest discomfort, pain or pressure
  • unusual sweating
  • fainting

Heart-smart fact

Your heart beats about 100,000 times a day and may accelerate to more than 160 beats per minute during intense exercise.

Most of us have felt heart palpitations at one time or another—the heart flutters, pounds, races, seems to skip a beat or even stop. These palpitations, or rapid or irregular heartbeats, are common and often harmless. But they can sometimes be a sign of an underlying heart condition, such as arrhythmia or a heart-valve problem, so it’s important to see your healthcare provider to find the cause.

Factors beyond heart-related causes that can bring on heart palpitations include:

  • medications such as nasal decongestants; asthma, thyroid, blood pressure and heart drugs; herbal supplements; and diet aids
  • alcohol, nicotine and caffeine
  • illegal drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines
  • medical conditions such as fever, anemia, overactive thyroid, low blood sugar, low potassium, oxygen-deprived blood, dehydration, shock and blood loss
  • hormone changes associated with menstruation, pregnancy and menopause
  • exercise
  • emotions such as stress, fear, anxiety and panic
  • hyperventilation
  • age

Assessing the problem

Your doctor will examine you and ask about your diet, any medications and herbal products you take and whether you have panic attacks. He or she may order blood and urine tests to check for signs of an infection, anemia, thyroid disorder or other problems. Heart monitoring tests will determine whether you have an abnormal heart rhythm. Your doctor may prescribe an electrocardiogram (EKG), stress test, chest X-ray or heart ultrasound. He or she may ask you to wear a portable EKG device such as a Holter monitor or event recorder for up to 14 days. You should keep a journal of your palpitations, noting speed, frequency, duration and your activity at the time.

In about one of every seven people, the cause of palpitations can’t be found but they usually aren’t harmful.

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