A walk alone down a dark street at night, that second before a first kiss or the final moment of a very close sports game can cause your heart to race. However, how do we explain the other times you feel an irregular heartbeat or a racing heart when there doesn’t seem to be an obvious cause?
Greg Gunn, lead heart and vascular physician assistant at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, sees patients almost daily with concerns about their heart. He took a moment to discuss common causes and some simple solutions for palpitations or a racing heart.
Common causes for a fast heartbeat
A racing heart (tachycardia) or palpitations (early or skipped heartbeats) are very common symptoms. Usually — in younger patients, especially — the causes are benign.
Common causes include:
- Consumption of caffeine, nicotine or alcohol
- Anxiety or a panic attack
- Hormonal changes or anemia (caused by heavy menstruation) in women
- Medication side effects, especially common with the use of inhalers to treat asthma or COPD
- Hormone imbalance, such as thyroid irregularities or adrenal disease
- Intense exercise
- Poor fitness level
- Dehydration, low potassium or low blood sugar
How to know if a fast heartbeat is a problem
As we get older, we become more prone to arrhythmias — such as atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter — that may cause dizziness or even stroke. Many times, a simple electrocardiogram (EKG), can be done to assess a person’s heart rhythm. If necessary, other studies can be performed to rule out more serious problems, such as coronary artery disease or electrical or conductive diseases of the heart.
When to see your doctor about a racing heart
Talk to your doctor if the palpitations or sensations of a racing heart become worrisome or bothersome. If you notice increasing fatigue, swelling in your legs or a significant weight gain of greater than two or three pounds in 24 hours, you need to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Seek emergency care immediately if you experience a racing heart or palpitations that persist longer than a few minutes and are associated with the following:
- Chest pain or pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of consciousness
How to prevent or relieve a racing heart or palpitations
Avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol will help prevent arrhythmias and tachycardia. Walking daily at a moderate pace will further condition your heart and make it less likely to race when exerting yourself. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, drink enough water and eat a balanced diet.
Sometimes doing a Valsalva maneuver — attempting to forcibly exhale while holding the mouth and nose closed — will slow down a racing heart in the moment. Also, finding time to relax, reflect, pray or meditate could help calm anxiety, panic or stress, all common causes of tachycardia or palpitations.
Take care of your whole self — mind, body and spirit — and your heart will be happy because of it!
For the news media: To talk with Greg Gunn, PA, about heart palpitations and tachycardia for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.