Heart palpitations are heartbeats that suddenly become noticeable.
Your heart may feel like it is pounding, fluttering or beating irregularly, often for just a few seconds or minutes. You may also feel these sensations in your throat or neck.
Palpitations may be alarming, but in most cases they are harmless and not a sign of any problem with your heart.
You may sometimes feel that your heart skips a beat or there is an extra beat. This is known medically as an ectopic beat - it is very common and, again, usually nothing to worry about.
However, sometimes palpitations may be a sign of a heart problem (see below), so if you are concerned or feel that they are not normal, see your GP.
Palpitations may be triggered by a surge of adrenaline, a hormone your body releases after you have overexerted yourself or when you feel nervous, anxious or excited. Smoking, consuming large amounts of caffeine, or using recreational drugs may also bring on palpitations.
If you think lifestyle factors are the cause of your palpitations, it is sensible to try to reduce your stress levels, try relaxation and deep breathing exercises and moderate the level of exercise you do. You should also try reducing your intake of coffee or energy drinks and avoid using recreational drugs.
If you experience palpitations regularly and you also have feelings of anxiety, stress and panic, you may be experiencing panic attacks. Panic attacks can be very frightening and intense, but they are not dangerous. You can learn more about them by reading our Health A-Z topic on panic attacks.
Less commonly, palpitations can be a side effect of some types of medicine, such as asthma inhalers or tablets for a thyroid problem. Speak to your GP if you think medication may be responsible for your palpitations. Do not stop taking a treatment without consulting your GP first.
Periods, pregnancy and the menopause
Sometimes the hormone changes that happen during a woman's period, during pregnancy or around the menopause can cause palpitations. These may only be temporary, and are often nothing to worry about.
The following conditions can make the heart beat faster, stronger or more irregularly, so can be a cause of heart palpitations:
- an overactive thyroid
- low blood sugar level
- some types of low blood pressure
- dehydration (not enough fluid in the body)
- a heart problem (see below)
When you may have a heart problem
If you start to experience palpitations more often, or if they get worse or occur with other symptoms such as dizziness or tightness in your chest, see your GP. You may have a heart rhythm problem, also known as arrhythmia. See the box, above left, for more information.
Your GP will be able to do an electrocardiogram (ECG) to assess your heart rate and rhythm. This may immediately confirm whether there is a problem, and whether treatment is needed. However, often the ECG is entirely normal as you are not having palpitations at the time. Further tests may then be needed, which are done by your GP or by your local hospital.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm problem, affecting up to 500,000 people in the UK. It causes episodes of a fast, irregular heart rate, which can feel like a persistent heart flutter, and you may also feel dizzy, short of breath and extremely tired. Atrial fibrillation is generally not life threatening, but can be uncomfortable and often needs treating.
A similar heart rhythm problem, called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), also causes episodes of an abnormally fast heart rate, but the heart rate is normally steady and not irregular. Attacks of SVT are usually harmless and tend to settle on their own without treatment, but if they are prolonged you may need to seek help from a doctor.
There are also other, less common heart rhythm conditions that may be the cause of your palpitations, which can be determined by appropriate tests. When your GP or hospital discovers the exact problem with your heart, ask them to explain it to you.