When Should You See a Doctor About Heart Palpitations? Cardiologists Explain

Woman experiencing heart palpitations

It’s natural to feel your heart beating faster when you’re climbing up a flight of stairs or jogging. But sometimes, you might feel your heart flutter when you’re simply sitting on the couch and enjoying your coffee or catching up on work emails.

The feeling of your heart pounding or racing is known as heart palpitations. Typically, heart palpitations are not anything to worry about, but there are times when you should see a doctor about them. Here, cardiologists explain what causes heart palpitations and when it’s important not to ignore them.

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What Are Heart Palpitations and What Causes Them?

“Palpitations are a sensation that one experiences that is usually described as their heart racing, pounding, fluttering or skipping a beat,” says Dr. Karishma Patwa, MD, a cardiologist with Manhattan Cardiology and contributor to LabFinder. Dr. Patwa says that heart palpitations are tied to the heart's electrical conduction system, a network of muscle cells in the heart’s wall that control heartbeats’ rate and rhythm. “The heart rate is how fast or slow your heart rate is, but more important is the rhythm of the heart, meaning where the heartbeat is originating,” Dr. Patwa explains.

Dr. Laxmi Mehta, MD, a cardiologist and Clinical Professor of Internal Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that heart palpitations are also referred to as arrhythmia. “The term ‘arrhythmia’ refers to any problem in the rate or rhythm of a person’s heartbeat,” she explains, adding that heart palpitations or arrhythmia occur when the electrical impulses may be too fast, too slow or erratic, causing an irregular heartbeat.

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Both cardiologists say that there are many causes of heart palpitations, which include physical exertion, stress, anxiety, pregnancy, caffeine, alcohol use, drug use, fever, an overactive thyroid, low blood sugar, dehydration, anemia, low potassium, low oxygen and an imbalance of fluids, hormones or electrolytes in the blood.

While anyone can experience heart palpitations, Dr. Patwa says that people with chronic health conditions or heart issues are at an increased risk.

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When to See a Doctor About Heart Palpitations, According to Cardiologists

According to both cardiologists, the majority of the time, heart palpitations are harmless and do not necessarily mean that something is wrong with the heart. However, there are instances when it is important to see a doctor about them. “When they are happening more frequently, for longer periods or changing in nature, you should see a doctor,” Dr. Patwa explains.

Dr. Mehta adds to this, saying, “If you are experiencing palpitations, it is best to schedule an appointment with your doctor so they can ask more detailed questions, perform an exam and determine next steps. If your heart is racing at more than 130 beats per minute for more than 10 minutes, your heart rate is less than 50 beats per minute or if the heartbeat is fast and erratic, then seek immediate medical attention.” She adds that anyone who is experiencing palpitations along with symptoms of chest pain, shortness of breath or have passed out should seek immediate medical attention.

The reason why both cardiologists say it’s important to see a doctor if you are experiencing palpitations regularly or for a long period is because it could be an indication of a cardiovascular issue that needs to be treated. “When the heart doesn't beat properly, it can't pump blood effectively. When this happens, the lungs, brain and all other organs can't work properly and may shut down or be damaged,” Dr. Mehta says. “In addition, sometimes palpitations are due to atrial fibrillation. It is important to be checked for this condition as untreated atrial fibrillation can be associated with strokes.”

Both cardiologists say that heart palpitations don’t always require treatment. Additionally, since there are a wide range of causes, there isn’t just one form of treatment. Both explain that treatment may include medication, hydration, stress relief, surgery or a device to correct the problem. “Sometimes, the treatment may be lifestyle changes, like to increase your water consumption, reduce caffeine intake, get adequate sleep or reduce stress levels,” Dr. Mehta says.

Dr. Mehta emphasizes that any time something feels “off” about your body, it’s worth seeing a doctor about—especially if it has to do with your heart. “It’s important to know your body and listen to your body when something feels different. Don’t be afraid to make an appointment to make sure any changes aren’t something to be concerned about,” she says.

There’s no need to worry every time your heart skips a beat. But if it’s happening often or lasting for a prolonged amount of time, see a doctor to find out why it’s happening. That way, both your heart and your mind will stop racing.

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