Palpitations are a sensation of a rapid or irregular heartbeat. A person with palpitations may describe their heart as ‘racing’, ‘thumping’ or ‘pounding’.
Causes of palpitations
Palpitations, especially in older people, are often generated by a heart problem such as abnormal rhythms of the heart, although some people have a sensation of palpitations just when their healthy heart is beating especially fast, during exercise or in anxiety.
The abnormal heart rhythms may include in particular atrial fibrillation (fast irregular contractions of chambers of the heart known as the atria) and any abnormally fast heart rhythm. The overlying cause may be coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis of the arteries supplying the heart muscle) an overactive thyroid gland or depression.
In younger, fitter people, palpitations are most often caused by stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, or by stress.
Some drug treatments can cause palpitations as a side effect.
Because they reflect an unusually fast heart beat, palpitations can cause the pumping action of the heart to become inefficient and delivery of oxygen to the body’s tissues may fall. This leads to symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest tightness or light-headedness. When this is the case, it’s important to seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Treatment of palpitations
Avoiding whatever triggers the palpitations, for example caffeine, may help prevent them but investigation and treatment of the underlying condition may be needed. For example, a heart problem might be treated with medication; stress may be treated with stress management.