Are your heart palpitations harmless or harmful?

Heart flutters can be caused by an array of physical and emotional catalysts. When are they a cause for concern?

29 May 2015
by Emily Pettit-Coetzee

Have you ever felt your heart skip a beat? It’s an odd sensation and although heart palpitations are a relatively common complaint, this doesn’t make them any less unnerving.

Approximately 16 percent of all patients who visit their GP or clinic do so because of heart palpitations – these are second only to chest pains when it comes to referrals to a cardiologist for a specialist opinion. Heart flutters are, more often than not, benign, but they can sometimes be a warning of a more serious condition. So what are they, why do they happen and when should you be concerned about them?

When it’s harmless…

The term "palpitation" is usually used to describe an abnormal sensation of awareness of one’s own heartbeat, for example, a pounding in your chest or a rapid flutter in your chest.  

Most palpitations are harmless and are caused by a ‘hiccup’ in the heart’s rhythm. Medically speaking, this is when the atrium or ventricle of the heart contracts prematurely, causing extra beats and then potentially a pause, followed by a normal contraction. 

According to studies, 40 to 60 percent of people experiencing heart palpitations will turn out to have a normal heart rhythm with premature contractions which are benign. They could be caused by depression, stress, anxiety, panic attacks and other psychological problems.

But they could also be the result of some form of underlying arrhythmia, an actual abnormality of the heart rhythm, some of which can be life threatening. 

When it’s harmful…

According to the Cardiac Arrhythmia Society of Southern Africa (CASSA), a cardiac arrhythmia is an abnormal pattern of the heartbeat. A normal heart will beat between 60 and 100 times per minute when at rest, but an arrhythmia can cause the heart to beat too quickly (tachycardia), too slowly (bradycardia) or irregularly. This is due to irregular electrical activity in the heart.

Other triggers include certain types of structural heart abnormalities, hyperthyroidism, postmenopausal syndrome, pregnancy and anaemia. Drug use is another common cause and anything from cigarettes, alcohol and cocaine, to beta-blockers, weight loss agents and asthma inhalers has the potential to cause an irregular heartbeat.

What you can do about it

Anyone feeling concerned about palpitations should go and see their doctor. This is particularly true in the following circumstances:

  • If you’ve suffered with previous heart disease or had heart surgery
  • If someone in your family died suddenly from heart complications or who has associated symptoms such as chest pain or syncope (fainting)
  • If the palpitations are more than just a skipped beat and are persistent or occur very frequently.

Discovering the cause is vital to prescribing a treatment, which is why it is so important to get a professional opinion. If it turns out you have no abnormalities and are just particularly sensitive to your heartbeat then exercise and stress management techniques could help. 

Should your cardiologist diagnose an arrhythmia you may require extra treatment, which could be anything from small changes in your lifestyle to a medical procedure, or a pacemaker. Ultimately, you need to get to know your heart – understand how it works and what causes it to skip a beat. Look after your heart and it will look after you.

How Clicks Clinics can help you

Clicks Clinics can help you prevent or manage heart disease with their wide range of screening tests. These include:

  • Blood Pressure (BP) Test
  • Cholesterol Testing and Consultation
  • Lipogram Blood Test (to determine different types of cholesterol)
  • Clicks Full Basic Screening (BP, Body Mass Index or BMI, meal guide and exercise plan)
  • Clicks Screening Measurements only (BP and BMI)
  • Clicks Comprehensive Screening (BP, BMI, Glucose and Cholesterol screening, plus meal and exercise plan)

To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online.

Read More: Heart Disease Super Section