A racing heart is does not always mean there is something “wrong”. As you know, a racing heart can simply be brought on by exercise. In that case, it is very normal, and nothing is wrong. For the sake of this article, I’ll focus on the “wrong” reasons why your heart may be racing.
What are palpitations?
While palpitations are not necessarily the same as a racing heart, it is quite often difficult to discern the difference during an exam. “My heart feels like it is pounding” typically is a tip off that these are palpitations, but patients are not always so obvious. For this reason, I take the two complains, “racing heart” and “palpitations” just as serious.
Are palpitations irregular heart beats?
An irregular heart beat is synonymous with an arrhythmia. An arrhythmia is a deviation from the normal rate or rhythm of the heart. Generally speaking an arrhythmia does not follow the same “lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub” beat. That means either there is one or more “lub-dubs” out of order, or the rate at which they are occurring is too fast or slow. Having palpitations does not automatically mean there is an arrhythmia, but many times it proves to be true.
Can palpitations be harmless?
That depends on your definition of harmless. If having palpitations only causes you discomfort, then they are not harmless. They are also not harmless because they can be the first sign of a fatal arrhythmia or heart disease. There are times however, that they represent a non-fatal arrhythmia or even anxiety. Anyone with heart palpitations needs to be evaluated by a physician or healthcare provider.
Are palpitations curable?
Keep in mind that palpitations are a symptom that represents an underlying cause. Depending on the underlying cause, palpitations may be harder to treat. If palpitations represent a heart attack, then the ensuing damage to heart must be treated immediately. If the palpitations are a sign of an underlying arrhythmia then the electrical dysfunction of the heart must be addressed. For the most part, palpitations are treatable.
What are some common causes of palpitations?
Fight or flight response
Anything that triggers the bodies natural fight or flight response will likely give you palpitations. This includes heart attacks (myocardial infarction) and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Anxiety can loosely be put into this category as well. The fight or flight response is also known as the sympathetic nervous system. When activated, pupils dilate, blood rushes to skeletal muscle, and the heart races to pump out more oxygenated blood.
As mentioned above an arrhythmia is a deviation in speed or tempo from a normal heart beat. An arrhythmia is an electrical problem in the heart. The electrical nodes in the heart are not synchronized. The result is different parts of the heart firing at different times, causing an irregular heart beat, and possibly palpitations.
Exercise and excitement
Both can cause an elevation in heart rate known as tachycardia. Tachycardia by itself means the heart is beating in a controlled rhythm but at a high rate. Normal heart rate in an adult is 60-100 beats per minute. Anything over 100 bpm is considered tachycardic. Exercise, excitement, and even caffeine can cause tachycardia and possibly palpitations.
Elevation in thyroid hormone may cause your heart to race. Many times this is the first symptom of hyperthyroidism in an otherwise healthy person. Thyroid hormones have many functions, which is why having too little or too much of it can cause vast symptoms.
The bottom line
Palpitations and a racing heart should be taken seriously. They may be due to something as simple as anxiety, but may be your body telling you something is very wrong. It is hard to distinguish between the two without the proper diagnostic tools, which is why many people spend hours in an emergency room for an anxiety attack. A thorough workup is always necessary when having a racing heart.