February is a popular time of year for first dates and fluttering hearts. Have you ever waited for a date with such anticipation that your heart seems to skip a beat when you hear your Valentine knock? Although it’s a romantic sentiment, seeing your loved one isn’t the likely reason for your pounding heart. While palpitations can be disconcerting if you are an otherwise healthy person, they aren’t usually a cause for concern. In fact, they often go away without medical attention. But some do warrant a visit to the doctor.
What if your heart is struggling with something more serious?
In some cases, an irregular heartbeat, also known as arrhythmia, could be a sign of problems with your heart’s electrical system. Although these episodes are common and often benign, they may be putting you at risk for stroke or heart failure. If you experience palpitations along with any of the symptoms below, seek medical help immediately. This combination could be a sign of heart disease and may be deadly if left untreated.
Warning signs of heart disease
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath (during normal activity)
- Swelling in lower extremities
It is very difficult to self-diagnose what kind of heart arrhythmia you are experiencing, so it’s always best to see a heart-rhythm specialist (electrophysiologist) or cardiologist if you have any concerns.
Are you at risk?
View the list below to help you estimate your risk of developing a heart arrhythmia.
- High blood pressure
- Lung disease
- Over 60 years old
- Overactive thyroid
- Prior heart attacks
- Prior open heart surgery
- Sleep apnea
Let’s examine two types of arrhythmia and what they mean for your overall health.
Premature ventricular contractions (PVCs)
Premature ventricular contractions are abnormal, extra heartbeats that disrupt your normal heart rhythm. Immediately following a PVC, it can feel like your heart skips a beat. This is your heart’s electrical system resetting, triggering a brief pause in your hearts’ normal rhythm.
PVCs are common and can sporadically occur in healthy hearts. While they are generally harmless, if they become more frequent or if you have an underlying heart condition you should tell your doctor immediately.
In some cases, PVCs are a warning sign for undiagnosed cardiac disease. This can be especially true if you’ve never experienced palpitations before and they suddenly become frequent. It may be a warning sigh that something serious has happened to your heart. Learn more from one of our patients in Oregon.
This type of arrhythmia can feel like a quivering inside your chest. While very common, atrial fibrillation can increase your risk of stroke or heart failure. If you have atrial fibrillations, your heart is unable to pump blood out to the rest of your body effectively. Instead, it pools inside the atria (upper chambers of the heart) leaving you vulnerable to blood clots. Blood clots can get stuck in an artery leading to the brain, causing a stroke.
If you are predisposed to heart irregularities or have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, there are some everyday foods that are unexpectedly dangerous. Caffeine and nicotine can cause more frequent episodes of a quickened, irregular heartbeat because they act as a stimulant. Alcohol can also be dangerous even though it is largely considered a depressant. It is important to note that while alcohol is a depressant for your brain, it is a stimulant for your heart.
While those may not be completely unexpected, did you know that some leafy greens (like spinach), cold and allergy medications, as well as certain herbs and supplements have the ability to trigger an atrial fibrillation? If you are at risk or currently experiencing heart arrhythmia, try to avoid foods and supplements containing vitamins K and E. They are okay to eat in moderation, however too much at once may counteract the blood-thinning effects of your heart medication and trigger palpitations.
Electrophysiology (EP) testing for heart arrhythmia
After you’ve taken the first step toward managing your heart health, you may undergo an EP test. This is a valuable method for assessing your heart’s electrical activity by provoking an irregular heartbeat. EP technology allows heart-rhythm specialists to better diagnose and treat irregular heartbeats or arrhythmia by mapping the electrical system of your heart. Fine gauge catheters are threaded to your heart so they can sense its electrical activity. A doctor will then send electricity through the catheters to your heart to provoke an irregular heartbeat, which helps the doctor evaluate your heart and determine the best treatment.
It is nearly impossible to diagnose the root cause of your own irregular heartbeat. Since hearts are the topic-de-jure this month, be sure to make an appointment with a Cardiologist or heart-rhythm specialist (also known as an electrophysiologist) to find out if your palpitations can be resolved through simple lifestyle changes or if medication is required.
Tell us about your experience
Have you had an electrophysiology study performed to assess your heart’s electrical system? If so, do you have any advice? Tell us in the comments below.