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Heart Palpitations: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

A heart palpitation — a feeling of fluttering or pounding in your chest — is often harmless.

Stress, hormones, or even medicine can cause them. But they can sometimes signal a more serious heart condition.

Contact the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute

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What Are Heart Palpitations?

Heart palpitations make you feel a fluttering or pounding in your chest or like your heart is racing.

Heart palpitations are common and often harmless. Most people experience them at some point in their lives.

But they can feel unsettling and, on occasion, may be a symptom of a more serious heart problem.

Causes of heart palpitations

Common causes include:

  • Anxiety, stress, or fear.
  • Caffeine.
  • Nicotine.
  • Intense exercise.
  • Hormone changes during pregnancy.
  • Some medicine.

More serious causes of heart palpitations include:

Heart palpitation risk factors

Risks of heart palpitations include:

  • Heart disease or risk factors for heart disease.
  • A heart valve defect.
  • An electrolyte imbalance, such as low potassium.
  • Pregnancy.
  • High levels of stress.
  • Stimulants, such as caffeine or cold medicines that have them.
  • An overactive thyroid.

Preventing heart palpitations

You can most often control the factors that cause heart palpitations and prevent them.

Learn what triggers your heart palpitations and then reduce or prevent them by:

  • Avoiding stressful situations as much as you can.
  • Reducing or managing stress through mindfulness or relaxation techniques.
  • Limiting caffeine or other stimulants.
  • Quitting smoking or using tobacco products.
  • Keeping alcohol intake moderate.
  • Following a healthy diet.
  • Getting routine exercise.
  • Maintaining healthy blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.

Heart Palpitation Symptoms and Diagnosis

Heart palpitation symptoms

A palpitation feels like:

  • A heart flutter or pounding in your chest.
  • Your heart is skipping a beat.
  • Your heart is beating too fast.

You may feel them in your throat, neck, or chest.

Symptoms may occur when you're active or at rest.

In most cases, heart palpitations don't happen often and last only a few seconds.

When to see a doctor about heart palpitations

See a doctor or call 911 right away if you have heart palpitations along with:

  • Chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Fainting or dizziness.
  • Unusual sweating.

Diagnosing heart palpitations

Most heart palpitations aren't a serious problem. You should talk to your doctor if they become more frequent or worsen.

Your doctor will order tests to look for a heart condition or other cause of your palpitations.

These tests may include:

  • Echocardiograms. A painless type of ultrasound that uses sound waves to see inside the heart. A doctor or sonographer moves a device around your chest to view pictures of your heart.
  • EKGs. This test measures the electrical activity in your heart. It's a painless, noninvasive test that uses sensors attached to your chest and limbs. The sensors send signals to a computer that records your heart's electrical activity.
  • Holter monitors. This is a device you wear for a few days. It tracks your heart rate and rhythm while exercising, resting, and doing daily activities.

Our experts can diagnose heart palpitations and treat their underlying causes.

Heart Palpitation Treatment

Most heart palpitations aren't serious and don't need treatment.

To limit them, you can look for ways to avoid triggers, such as:

  • Controlling stress and anxiety. Find techniques that help you relax, such as yoga, meditation, or calming hobbies.
  • Changing medications. Be careful about using over-the-counter drugs that have stimulants, such as cold medicines. Some diet pills, asthma inhalers, antibiotics, and antipsychotics can cause heart palpitations.
  • Avoiding stimulants. Limit tea, coffee, energy drinks, chocolate, and other foods that have caffeine. Stay away from nicotine. Also, foods high in salt and sugar can affect your heart rate. Eat heart-healthy foods like fruits, veggies, and fish.

If a more serious heart problem is causing your heart palpitations, your doctor will design a treatment plan for that condition.

Experts at the UPMC Cardiac EP Program offer cutting-edge testing and treatment for people with heart palpitations.