The most iconic of organs, the heart is said to “flutter” with nerves, “pound” with excitement, or “stop” with surprise.
About the size of a clenched fist, it beats 100,000 times a day in a synchronized rhythm that usually goes unnoticed.
That is, until a sudden shift causes concern.
You may feel like your heart is racing, fluttering, flopping or has skipped a beat. These symptoms of an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, are common and may pose no threat. But, sometimes, they signal a serious medical condition.
“Not everyone who feels a palpitation needs to rush to their doctor, but all arrhythmias are manifestations of some electrical abnormality within the heart, and may need to be evaluated,” says Dr. Teferi Mitiku, UCI Health board-certified cardiologist and electrophysiologist, who specializes in heart arrhythmias.
What makes your heart tick?
Your heart runs on an internal electrical system. Each beat starts with a pulse generated by a clump of tissue in your heart’s upper right chamber (atrium) called the sinus, or “SA” node. This electrical signal passes from your heart’s upper right chamber to its upper left chamber, and then transfers down to its two lower chambers (ventricles) via another “switchbox,” called the sinoatrial, or “AV” node.
As the signal passes through the different chambers, it causes them to contract in a smooth, synchronized pattern. Any glitch causes an arrhythmia.
“When beats between the upper and lower chambers come off cycle, for example, everything resets, and while it’s resetting you get the sensation of skipping a beat,” says Mitiku. “But you’re not skipping a beat; you’re actually experiencing an extra beat while your heart is resetting.”
Most arrhythmias are temporary and non-life threatening. They can be caused by:
In more serious cases, an abnormal heart rhythm can be a sign of heart disease or other medical condition that requires a doctor visit or consultation.
When to see a doctor
You should see a doctor if:
“If you have symptoms of lightheadedness, chest pain, or shortness of breath along with an irregular heart rhythm, then seek help immediately,” says Mitiku. “You may have to be evaluated for the more dangerous arrhythmias or sudden cardiac arrest.”
When to wait it out
If you have none of the above symptoms or risk factors — including high blood pressure or diabetes — you may be able to wait and see whether your arrhythmia was only temporary. Take note of what may have triggered it, such as stress, medication or stimulants (such as coffee or energy drinks). Lower your caffeine intake and avoid smoking. To manage stress, try doing some deep breathing exercises, meditation or yoga.
If the arrhythmia persists or returns even after you have removed the suspected cause, then get it checked out.
UCI Health arrhythmia specialists can perform sophisticated tests to diagnose the nature of heart irregularities. Further, they have expertise in advanced procedures to treat the irregular, dangerous arrhythmias.
“A recurring sensation of an abnormal heartbeat needs to be checked out,” says Mitiku. “Fortunately, we have more options than ever before to diagnose what is going on and to treat your arrhythmia.”