Palpitations – only a heartbeat away
Just imagine sitting quietly when suddenly you feel your heart racing. What’s going on? Is there something wrong with your heart? You immediately start to feel anxious, and your heart races even faster. Should you worry? Well, the good news is that this scenario is very common. What’s more, it’s usually nothing to worry about. In fact, feeling stressed or anxious is one of the most common causes of palpitations.
Palpitations – what are they?
When doctors talk about palpitations, we simply mean being aware of your own heartbeat. ‘Arrhythmias’ are any kind of abnormal heart rhythm. Even these are often not serious – but it’s always worth getting any new change in your heart rate checked out quickly. You may well come out with a clean bill of health and a huge weight off your mind!
Questions your doctor will ask
- Is your heartbeat fast all the time? If it is, it could be caused by an overactive thyroid gland.
- Do you drink a lot of coffee, tea or cola? Large amounts of caffeine over a short period can cause your heart rate to go up.
- Does it usually come on when you’re lying in bed or sitting quietly? This makes it more likely that your fast heartbeat is caused by anxiety.
- How long do episodes last?
- Are you under stress? Palpitations during times of anxiety are very common, but rarely signal a serious medical problem.
What should I look out for?
- Sudden onset of very fast palpitations (more than about 150 beats every minute).
- Irregular heartbeat. This can be caused by a condition called atrial fibrillation, where the natural pulses of electricity which make your heart beat regularly, are disrupted.
- Feeling breathless, sweaty or dizzy. This often happens when your heart is racing because of stress. However, it can be a sign that your heart isn’t pumping blood properly, leaving your body short of oxygen. It can sometimes signal a heart attack.
- Do you get short of breath when you lie flat or exert yourself, or have swelling of your ankles? This may mean that fluid is building up in your system because your heart isn’t pumping efficiently
- Chest pain. This can often happen if you’re having an anxiety attack. However, it always needs checking out.
What’s the treatment?
This will very much depend on the cause. Often medicines will be able to control your symptoms effectively and safely, even if an abnormal heart rhythm is the cause. Rarely, abnormal heart rhythms need to be treated with a pacemaker. If anxiety or excess caffeine are at the root of your problem, you’ll need to manage these.
Heart attacks – it’s not just men who get them!
As we women live longer and longer, we get more prone to heart attacks. Fortunately, treatment is more successful than ever, and if you seek help urgently, the chances of healthy survival have never been higher.
But women, strangely, don’t get the ‘classic’ tight or squeezing central chest pain, which sometimes spreads to the shoulder, neck or jaw, as often as men (in one study, fewer than three out of five women got it).
Instead, they may get:
- Shortness of breath.
- Extreme tiredness.
- Pressure or discomfort on the upper tummy, like indigestion.
These symptoms are often much more vague, and less dramatic, than severe chest pain. This may be why women often wait longer before they seek medical help. Of course, the good news is that if you do get these symptoms, they may well be due to a less worrying cause. But don’t take the risk – get them checked out immediately. It could save your life!