16 Signs Your Heart Palpitations Could Be Something Way Worse
Usually, heart palpitations are no cause for concern—but in the presence of these other symptoms and scenarios, they signal serious trouble.
What are heart palpitations?
That odd sensation in the middle of your chest can be alarming, but often it’s just a misfire in your heart rhythm. A series of electrical impulses keep your heart pumping; when one of the impulses is mistimed, you’ll feel palpitations in your chest. Most of the time it’s nothing, but they can be a sign of something dangerous. There are numerous types of heart rhythm disorders, says Denice Hodgson-Zingman, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor of internal medicine with University of Iowa Health Care. “Some of them make the heart beat irregularly, and this can be perceived as a sensation of ‘flip-flops,’” she says.
Symptoms to watch for
If those electrical impulses fire in the wrong order, you can have the sensation of neck fullness and heart pounding, says Dr. Hodgson-Zingman. “Other rhythm disorders consist of intermittent single extra beats or runs of beats. Because these extra beats are too fast to allow the heart to pump blood efficiently, it can feel as if your heart is skipping beats.” According to Joe Lau, MD, PhD, a cardiologist at Northwell Health and an American Heart Association expert, palpitations may also feel like a fluttering or racing sensation. It’s just one of the 11 silent signs of heart trouble you shouldn’t ignore.
“Palpitations are a symptom, so there’s no way to generally define what they feel like because, like all symptoms, the way that it feels varies from one patient to another,” says Emily Zeitler, MD, an electrophysiologist (or heart rhythm doctor) at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and a former member of the American College of Cardiology’s Electrophysiology Council. She says palpitations require a diagnostic evaluation by your doctor.
Sign: You often have palpitations
“Depending on the exact causes, some patients may have symptoms infrequently, while others may have several continuous episodes a day, sometimes with each episode lasting for several minutes at a time,” Dr. Lau says. Chances are, if palpitations are only occurring rarely, you don’t need to rush to the doctor. Less serious causes for palpitations can include stress, anxiety, caffeine, alcohol, illness, or pregnancy, he says. Check out 45 things heart doctors do to protect their own hearts.
Sign: You have chest pain
Go right to the emergency room (or call an ambulance) if you get chest pain with palpitations, warns Dr. Zeitler. This is a classic sign that your heart’s in serious trouble. Don’t miss the 25 heart-health secrets cardiologists want you to know.
Sign: You’re having trouble catching your breath
In fact, you probably shouldn’t even wait for a doctor’s appointment if you’re experiencing this, as you may be having a cardiac event. When experiencing palpitations, “if you feel like you might pass out or you actually do pass out then you probably need to be seen right away in an urgent care or an emergency department,” she says. Here are 9 things to know about heart attacks before you have one.
Sign: You passed out
While most people would know something’s wrong with fainting, if your loss of consciousness is preceded by or followed by palpitations, you have even more reason to get medical attention stat, warns Dr. Zeitler. This could indicate some sort of cardiac event, she says. Dr. Lau says dizziness and leg swelling with palpitations can also signal serious heart trouble.
Sign: You have stroke symptoms
“Any stroke-like symptoms such as asymmetric weakness, facial droop, confusion, word-finding difficulty, or visual changes, would be worrisome,” Dr. Hodgson-Zingman says. These are the 7 stroke signs most people ignore.
Sign: You can’t get through your day
Even if you’re not having very scary symptoms, if you just feel generally terrible or need to stay in bed due to the weird sensations in your chest, you could benefit from treatment, says Dr. Zeitler. Although the cause itself may be benign, it needs to be addressed so that you can function. “Atrial fibrillation [AFib], a very frequent cause of palpitations, comes from the top chamber of the heart, the atrium, and it causes the bottom chamber of the heart to squeeze in an irregular way; the heart rhythm is chaotic,” Dr. Zeitler says. “You don’t have to treat AFib, but doctors often do because it makes people feel really bad and we can make people feel better with medications or with procedures such as ablation.” Find out what it means when your heart skips a beat—and 9 things that cause it.
Sign: You’ve had palpitations for a long time
Another reason palpitations can be dangerous is that they can weaken the heart muscle. “Heart rhythm abnormalities, if they remain untreated and persist for weeks to months, can result in the heart muscle becoming weak, which is called cardiomyopathy,” Dr. Hodgson-Zingman says. “Fortunately, this form of cardiomyopathy is often completely reversible once the heart rhythm disorder is corrected.” In addition, even less dangerous conditions like AFib can have long-term consequences. “This rhythm is not fatal, but it is associated with a much higher risk of stroke and can cause cardiomyopathy if not recognized and treated,” she says. Discover the 12 heart health breakthroughs that could save your life.
Sign: Your heart starts beating really fast
Normally, you won’t even notice your heartbeat—but if you do and it’s speeding up, it could mean your blood pressure is dropping. “When blood pressure is low, the heart compensates by beating faster and harder, and that can feel like a pounding or racing heart,” says Dr. Hodgson-Zingman. If it’s temporary, it could stem from being startled or experiencing strong emotions. However, see your primary care doctor if it keeps happening. Read about 9 reasons your heart is racing—that are completely normal.