Having heart palpitations might make you think, “Well, living has been cool and all, but I guess that’s over now.” In reality, heart palpitations usually aren’t a sign your heart’s decided to give up the ghost—but in some cases, they can be a cause for concern. Here’s what to know about how to tell the difference.
“Heart palpitations” is a catchall term for feeling like your heart is acting weird.
“Generally when we talk about palpitations, it means you’re aware of your heart beating, and it feels like it’s not normal,” Shephal Doshi, M.D., director of cardiac electrophysiology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells SELF.
If you ask four people with heart palpitations to describe them, you might get four varying answers. “When people say, ‘I have heart palpitations,’ they can mean so many different things that you have to tease out some details as to what exactly they feel,” Sanjiv Patel, M.D., cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells SELF.
Typically, your heart knows when to squeeze based on electrical impulses from a group of cells known as your sinoatrial (SA) node, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). These cells are housed in your heart’s right chamber, also known as its right atrium. If your SA node starts sending wonky electrical impulses, you might experience heart palpitations.
Anything that increases the adrenaline in your body can affect these electrical impulses, Dr. Doshi says. That includes stress, panic attacks, caffeine, having a cold or flu, being sleep-deprived, and taking medications that contain stimulants. Your heart has receptors that pick up on heightened adrenaline, so any surges of this hormone can cause it to act differently.
It’s pretty rare that a heart palpitation signals impending doom, but here’s when you should go see your doctor.
One-off heart palpitations that just last a few seconds are a normal part of having a heart. Experiencing them regularly is not. “If heart palpitations happen every time you do [a certain activity], like walk half a mile or lift something, that’s not a random event and you should be evaluated,” Dr. Patel says.
If your heart palpitations come along with any symptoms like dizziness, feeling unsteady, fainting, or chest discomfort or pain, that’s a sign your heart’s functioning may be compromised. “That warrants further investigating to make sure it’s nothing dangerous,” Dr. Doshi says.
Your medical history also comes into play, especially if you have a history of health conditions involving your heart. A healthy 30-year-old has less reason for concern than a 60-year-old with heart disease, Dr. Doshi says.
With that said, if your heart palpitations are random, don’t come with other symptoms, and you’re in great health, they might still feel too weird to ignore. There’s no law against seeing your doctor just to be on the safe side. They can test your heart to make sure it’s working as it should so you can skip worrying about your health the next time your heart skips a beat.