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Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Heart palpitations article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

Synonyms: ectopic beats, premature beats, premature atrial or ventricular complexes

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What are extrasystoles?

Extrasystoles are essentially extra beats, or contractions, which interrupt the normal regular rhythm of the heart. They occur when there is electrical discharge from somewhere in the heart other than the sino-atrial node. They are classified as atrial or ventricular extrasystoles according to their site of origin.

The normal heart rate and rhythm are determined by the sino-atrial node in the right atrium, which acts as the pacemaker for the heart. This node discharges electric current through the atria causing them to contract.

The electric current then passes through the atrioventricular (AV) node which lies within the lower interatrial septum. Electrical impulses pass from here into the Purkinje's network, along the right and left bundles of His, and excite the ventricular muscles, causing their contraction.

The conduction system and myocardium have a nerve supply and are hormone sensitive (to catecholamines), which allows regulation of the heartbeat according to different activities, stress and excitement.

How common are extrasystoles? (Epidemiology)

Both atrial and ventricular extrasystoles are common at all ages.

Atrial extrasystoles

  • These are common in healthy people with normal hearts. There are often seen on 24-hour Holter monitoring in over 60% of healthy adults.

  • They can also occur when there is increased pressure on the atria such as in cardiac failure or mitral valve disease and may occur prior to the development of atrial fibrillation. They are exacerbated by alcohol and caffeine.

Ventricular extrasystoles

  • These are common and can occur at any age.

  • Premature ventricular contractions (PVC) have been described in 1% of clinically normal people as detected by a standard ECG and 40-75% of apparently healthy persons as detected by 24- to 48-hour ambulatory ECG recording.1

  • They are more common in those with structural heart disease. Ventricular extrasystoles are the most common type of arrhythmia that occurs after myocardial infarction. They may also occur in severe left ventricular (LV) hypertrophy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and congestive cardiac failure.

There are various classification systems for ventricular ectopics, in terms of their clinical risk, frequency or focus of origin.


  • Atrial extrasystoles are very common and only rarely associated with any disease.

  • Ventricular extrasystoles are also common. In a structurally normal heart, they are almost always benign.

  • Both are usually abolished by exercise.

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Significance of extrasystoles

Extrasystoles can occur frequently in people with completely normal hearts and often do not cause any problems. However, they can also be a feature of certain cardiac diseases.

Significance of atrial extrasystoles

  • Usually, atrial extrasystoles do not cause problems.

  • However, a 2017 meta-analysis demonstrated that frequent premature atrial complexes were associated with an increased risk of stroke and death from all causes, cardiovascular diseases and coronary artery disease.2

  • In some cases, runs of atrial ectopy can lead to paroxysms of atrial fibrillation.

Significance of ventricular extrasystoles

Patients without cardiac disease
Ventricular extrasystoles are often found in clinical practice. In the absence of heart disease, they are usually benign and the prognosis is thought to be good.

However, in a 2017 study 5,778 subjects who were pacemaker- and tachycardia-free received 24-hour ECG monitoring.3 Those who had a premature ventricular complex frequency of more than 12 beats per day had an increased risk of cardiac death attributable to heart failure and sudden cardiac death. The incidence rates for mortality and heart failure were significantly increased where there was a raised PVC frequency.

Patients with cardiac disease
In the presence of significant structural heart disease, frequent ventricular extrasystoles indicate an increased risk of sudden cardiac death, and specialist advice should be sought.

Risk factors for extrasystoles

  • Can occur in normal hearts, where the prevalence of extrasystoles increases with age.

  • Hypertension.

  • Heart disease, including acute myocardial infarction, valvular heart disease, cardiomyopathy, ventricular hypertrophy and cardiac failure.

  • Electrolyte disturbances, including hypokalaemia, hypomagnesaemia, hypercalcaemia.

  • Drugs, including digoxin, aminophylline, tricyclic antidepressants, cocaine, amphetamines.

  • Alcohol excess.

  • Infection.

  • Stress.

  • Surgery.

  • Hyperthyroidism.

  • Possibly, central sleep apnoea is linked to ventricular ectopics.

  • Stimulants such as caffeine may have a role.

Continue reading below

Symptoms of extrasystoles (presentation)

May be a coincidental finding on a routine ECG.

Possible symptoms

  • Palpitations are the main reported symptom:

    • There is an awareness of a change in the force, rate or rhythm of the heartbeat.

    • Extrasystoles usually occur after a normal heartbeat and are followed by a pause until the normal heart rhythm returns. Therefore, they may be felt as 'missed' or 'skipped' beats or 'feeling the heart has stopped'.

    • Alternatively, they can be felt as a thud or strange sensation like a somersault in the chest, or as extra beats. They can be uncomfortable and cause significant anxiety in some people.

  • Symptoms are usually worse at rest and may disappear with exercise. Symptoms which increase on exercise are more worrying and significant.

  • Other possible symptoms:

    • Syncope or near syncope (dizziness).

    • Atypical chest pain.

    • Fatigue.

    • There are case reports in which chronic cough ± syncope were the presenting symptoms of extrasystoles.

Possible signs

  • There may be none.

  • Variable or decreased intensity of heart sounds; the augmented beat following a dropped beat may be heard.

  • Variable pulse rhythm.

  • Visible jugular pulse (cannon a wave) from loss of AV synchrony.

See also the article on Cardiovascular History and Examination.

Diagnosing extrasystoles (assessment)


  • Detailed history of the presenting symptom - including onset, duration, associated symptoms and recovery.

  • Check for other cardiac symptoms including chest pain, breathlessness, syncope or near syncope (eg, dizziness), and arrhythmia symptoms (eg, sustained fast palpitations).

  • If there is history of syncope, note that:

    • Exertional syncope should always raise alarm of a sinister cause.

    • Rapid recovery after the syncopal event, without confusion or drowsiness, is characteristic of cardiac syncope.

  • Family history - for early cardiac disease or sudden death.

  • Previous cardiac disease or coronary heart disease (CHD) risk factors.


  • Cardiovascular system including blood pressure, heart murmurs and any signs of cardiac failure.


In patients presenting with palpitations initial investigations are:4

  • Resting 12-lead ECG.

  • FBC and TFTs.

  • Electrolytes.

Other investigations:

  • Serum calcium and magnesium.

  • If symptoms have a long duration (many hours), advise the patient to attend their GP surgery or A&E for a 12-lead ECG during the next episode.

  • Ambulatory ECG monitoring:

    • If symptoms are short-lived but frequent (>2-3 times per week), use a 24-hour Holter monitor.

    • If symptoms are short-lived and infrequent (<1 per week), use an event monitor or transtelephonic recorder.

  • Echocardiography - to assess LV function and heart structure.

  • Exercise stress testing - the relation of extrasystoles to exercise may have prognostic importance.

  • Further non-invasive cardiac imaging may be required.

ECG findings5

Atrial extrasystoles

  • No P-wave or an abnormally shaped P-wave.

  • Early QRS complex of similar morphology to normal sinus beats.

Ventricular extrasystoles

  • Early QRS complex.

  • No P-wave.

  • QRS complex wide (greater than 120 msec) and abnormally shaped.

  • Abnormally shaped T-wave.

When these alternate with normal QRS complexes, the rhythm is called bigeminy. When extrasystoles occur with every third beat, the rhythm is called trigeminy.

For examples see the ECG library (link provided under 'Further reading & references', below).

Which patients need referral?5

  • Underlying heart disease is suspected from the clinical assessment and/or electrocardiogram (ECG).

  • Extrasystoles are frequent or ventricular tachycardia is suspected.

The urgency of referral depends on clinical judgement, taking into account the frequency and duration of symptoms and other medical conditions. Discussion with a specialist may be helpful if there is uncertainty about the urgency or usefulness of referral. Usually, refer to an arrhythmia clinic, if available.

Management of extrasystoles5

Low-risk patients with no other cardiac problems and no symptoms (or minor symptoms only) can be reassured. Other patients (those with cardiac disease, cardiac risk or significant symptoms) will usually need further assessment, treatment or follow-up.

Patients with a high intake of caffeine or other stimulants may be advised to try reducing their intake, to see whether or not this improves their symptoms or the extrasystoles.

Other treatment options include:

  • Drugs - beta-blockers (eg, atenolol, metoprolol).

  • Radiofrequency catheter ablation of the ectopic focus (in suitable cases).

Atrial extrasystoles (ectopics): manage any cardiovascular risk factors identified and give lifestyle advice.
Ventricular extrasystoles (ectopics): manage any cardiovascular risk factors. If there are no features of underlying heart disease and palpitations are infrequent, reassure and offer lifestyle advice.

See also the article on Heart Palpitations for further information.

Lifestyle advice

Advise about driving and work if appropriate.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) regulations state that:6

For Group 1 entitlement, driving must cease if the arrhythmia has caused or is likely to cause incapacity. Driving may be permitted when the underlying cause has been identified and controlled for at least four weeks.

For Group 2 entitlement, the driver is disqualified from driving if the arrhythmia has caused or is likely to cause incapacity. Driving may be permitted once the underlying cause has been identified, when the arrhythmia is controlled for at least three months, and the left ventricular ejection fraction is at least 40%.

Further reading and references

  1. Frequent ventricular extrasystoles: significance, prognosis and treatment; European Society of Cardiology (2011)
  2. Huang BT, Huang FY, Peng Y, et al; Relation of premature atrial complexes with stroke and death: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Cardiol. 2017 Nov;40(11):962-969. doi: 10.1002/clc.22780. Epub 2017 Aug 28.
  3. Lin CY, Chang SL, Lin YJ, et al; An observational study on the effect of premature ventricular complex burden on long-term outcome. Medicine (Baltimore). 2017 Jan;96(1):e5476. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000005476.
  4. Robinson KJ, Sanchack KE; Palpitations. StatPearls Publishing; 2019.
  5. Palpitations; NICE CKS, April 2020 (UK access only)
  6. Assessing fitness to drive: guide for medical professionals; Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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