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What are Heart Palpitations?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Heart palpitations are a general class used to identify any unusual awareness a person has of his or her heart beating. This includes noticing that one’s heart is beating slower than usual, more quickly than usual, or with small gaps in its beat. This may also be used to describe, though less frequently so, a heightened awareness of the heart’s normal beat.

A normal heartbeat for an adult human is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Heart palpitations may occur if the heart beats in excess of 100 beats per minute, a condition known as tachycardia. Tachycardia makes the heart use more oxygen to work and reduces its efficiency in pumping blood. Both of these problems can produce negative effects, particularly if the condition persists.

Heart palpitations may also occur if the heart beats less than 60 times per minute, which is known as bradycardia. Bradycardia is generally rarer than tachycardia, although it is not uncommon among well-conditioned athletes. Since their hearts have been conditioned differently than an average person’s, athletes may often have a resting heart-rate of less than 60 beats per minute, and unless accompanied by other symptoms, this should not be cause for concern.

Palpitations that are expressed as an irregularity in the heartbeat are referred to as fibrillations, and those which include an occasional extra heartbeat are called extrasystole. An atrial fibrillation is a very common cardiac arrhythmia, or heart irregularity, which increases with age. While there may be no negative consequences, a fibrillation is always cause to see a doctor.

Most people experience heart palpitations many times during their lives, and they are often not at all serious. Any number of things may lead to an increased or decreased heartbeat, and even a slight irregularity may be nothing serious. They may also serve as excellent warning signs, however, for future problems brought on by various forms of heart disease, an imbalance in an important electrolyte such as potassium, a serious valve defect, or a problem with the body’s endocrine system. Most doctors recommend that heart palpitations be examined immediately, particularly if there is a history in your family of heart disease or heart irregularities.

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Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Aug 31, 2014

Medications cause heart palpitations too. When I was young, I had hypothyroidism and had to use synthetic hormones. Those gave me tachycardia in the beginning. I was not alarmed though because my doctor had already warned me of this side effect.

I also experienced bradycardia once due to a blood pressure medication that reduced my heart rate too much.

If anyone is on new medications and has started experiencing heart palpitations, the medications may be the cause. It should be listed in the side effect although sometimes it does occur that the drug company doesn't list it.

By stoneMason — On Aug 31, 2014

@bear78-- I'm not a doctor or expert but there are different causes of heart palpitations. So they are not necessarily a sign of a heart attack. But heart palpitations that occur often, persistently or worsen should definitely be looked into if the cause is not obvious.

There are a few most common symptoms of heart attacks such as chest, arm, shoulder, neck or jaw pain and breathlessness. If any of these accompany heart palpitations, then in that case, the symptoms do point towards a heart attack. An ambulance should be called or a visit should be made to the emergency room.

By bear78 — On Aug 30, 2014

Are heart palpitations a sign of a heart attack? Is it a common symptom and should emergency care be sought right away?

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