Healthy Heart

Heart Palpitations: When Is It a Sign of Something Serious?

Heart Palpitations: When Is It a Sign of Something Serious?

Heart palpitations, although it feels like a scary experience, are not always a sign of something serious. These palpitations are harmless but there are some instances when it could be a signal to a serious heart disease, especially if it is associated with other symptoms. This article explains about the warning signs that may indicate if you have a serious underlying heart disease associated with palpitations. Scroll down to learn when heart palpitations could be dangerous.

What is a heart palpitation?

A heart palpitation is the awareness of one’s heartbeat with the feeling of your heart fluttering. Most of the time, heart palpitations are harmless and all of us would have experienced them at some point in our lives. The normal causes of heart palpitations are anxiety, stress, caffeine intake, alcohol consumption, and exercise. What do these palpitations feel like? You may feel like as if your heart is racing, thumping, or pounding.

Although heart palpitations are usually harmless, it is important to rule out serious arrhythmias or underlying heart problems.

When are heart palpitations dangerous?

Sometimes, heart palpitations are connected to an underlying heart disease, especially when they are associated with other signs and symptoms. The warning signs associated with heart palpitations may arise if you have an underlying heart disease, which include:

  • Continuous palpitations – heart palpitations do not occur for a particular time; they can happen any time of the day.
  • The onset of palpitations – is very important to remember because the onset of your palpitations can indicate if your palpitations are a sign of heart disease. If the onset is gradual, it is very unlikely that your heart palpitations are due to an underlying heart disease. If your heart palpitations are a result of a serious heart disease, then the onset will be sudden. It will start abruptly, but also tend to disappear suddenly.

Other warning signs include:

If you have any of these symptoms that are associated with heart palpitations, then it is more likely that you are suffering from an underlying heart condition. Therefore, consult your cardiologist as early as possible to exclude such dangerous conditions or to start treatment quickly. Your doctor will first start off by taking a detailed history regarding your heart palpitations and will ask you to describe the way you feel the palpitations. Your medical history will help your doctor know your heart rate and rhythm, which are essential to establish an accurate diagnosis.

What are the serious causes of heart palpitations?

Heart palpitations may not only indicate an underlying heart problem; it could also be a part of many other diseases. Here are a few common causes of heart palpitations:

  1. An overactive thyroid gland – in this condition, your thyroid gland begins to secrete an excessive amount of thyroxine more than the amount that your body needs.
  2. Blocked coronary arteries - the buildup of plaque will make your coronary arteries become narrow, thus, making your heart beat faster, especially after doing exercises or other strenuous activities.
  3. Electrolyte imbalances (sodium and potassium) - electrolyte imbalances are usually caused by dehydration, fever, exercise, thyroid disorders, and certain medications. 
  4. Disease of the heart muscle - such as in the case of myocarditis, wherein there is damage and inflammation of the heart muscle. 
  5. Abnormalities in the electrical system of the heart - when something is not right in the heart’s electrical system, the heart will not function properly and produces irregular heartbeats. 
  6. Sinus node dysfunction - is a disease wherein the heart's natural pacemaker does not function properly. People who have a sinus node dysfunction will have erratic heart rhythms.
  7. Arrhythmias - is a heart rate disorder. In this condition, your heart can beat irregularly by beating too fast, or too slow. The usual cause of an arrhythmia is the heart’s problematic electrical system.
  8. Extrasystoles – are extra beats that interrupt the heart's normal rhythm. These extra beats are a benign cause of heart palpitations, which tend to disappear when exercising.
  9. Pheochromocytoma is a small epinephrine and norepinephrine-secreting tumor, which is found in the cells of the adrenal gland. This condition may cause heart palpitations and episodes of increased blood pressure.
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Can palpitations cause sudden cardiac death?

While most heart palpitations are benign and do not cause sudden death, there are certain factors that your doctor will assess when they think about heart palpitations that are associated with sudden death. Here are some factors that may increase your risk of sudden death:

  • A family history of premature or sudden death – If a young person in your family or any other relatives who died suddenly, then it is really important that you get yourself checked out regardless of whether you have palpitations or not. However, if you are experiencing heart palpitations along with such family history, then you definitely need to consult a doctor. The reason is that it is possible for you to inherit a similar gene and the palpitations could be a signal or a marker of such condition.
  • A family history of requiring a pacemaker at a very young age – Pacemakers are commonly used in elderly people, so it should not be a thing to be concerned about. However, it will be something to be worried about if someone in your family needed a pacemaker at a very young age. If this is the case, you need to get yourself checked out by a cardiologist.
  • A family history of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) or muscular dystrophy (MD) - is a hereditary heart disease that is caused by one or more gene mutations. The changes in a person's genes can be passed on through or can be inherited in families. This disease is characterized by the thickening of the heart's muscle walls.
  • History of blackouts - A blackout is like a light switch that goes off suddenly wherein everything gets dark and the person just falls to the ground, often resulting in injuries. Blackouts are not the same with "syncope" or fainting. When people faint, they usually sense a warning beforehand, so they still have time to stop what they are doing and lie down to rest. Often, fainting also does not result in an injury. Having a blackout, on the other hand, just comes in suddenly without any warning signs. A blackout is dangerous because it usually occurs due to a severe compromise of the blood flow, such as a reduced blood supply to your vital organs. Regardless of whether you are having heart palpitations or not, even one single blackout is more than enough for you to get yourself checked out by your cardiologist.
  • Past history of a cardiac problem - Having a congenital heart disease or a cardiomyopathy might be the causes of your heart palpitations. It is well worth that you get yourself get checked out because the palpitations in such heart conditions could be dangerous.

If you have these high risk indicators or if you have had any of these features at some point in your life, you definitely need to consult a doctor. Your cardiologist will do several tests to make sure that your heart palpitations are not due to an underlying heart problem.