If you’ve ever been anxious or stressed, you may have also experienced heart palpitations – that sensation of rapid, pounding heartbeats in your chest. And, that’s a perfectly normal part of any “fight or flight” response. But when exactly do irregular heartbeats or even shortness of breath become cause for concern? Here, DR DEVINDER SINGH, medical director and senior consultant cardiologist at Cadence Heart Centre, gives us the details.
Why does the heart race under stress?
In healthy adults, the heart beats anywhere from 60 to 100 times per minute when at rest. Under stressful situations, our body’s autonomic nervous system kicks in, triggering an increase in heart rate. This leads to rapid heart pounding or occasional “hiccups” in the heart’s rhythm. These heart palpitations are usually harmless and subside when triggers are addressed.
Heart palpitations that occur without any physiological triggers, on the other hand, could be a sign of an irregular heartbeat. This is something more serious that warrants a doctor’s attention.
What does it mean to have an irregular heartbeat?
An irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmia, is a cardiac rhythm disorder where the heart beats too fast, too slow or irregularly, often with skipped beats and fluttering sensations – and it beats this way without any provocation or triggers. These abnormalities affect the amount of blood that is pumped from the heart to the rest of the body. If left untreated, arrhythmia could increase the risk of stroke, heart attack and other cardiac conditions if left untreated.
When should a doctor be consulted?
It’s always best to err on the side of caution. If you have a history of heart disease, experience chronic or worsening heart palpitations, or experience heart palpitations for no reason, you should consult your doctor.
Also, seek medical attention if heart palpitations occur with the following:
- chest pain or discomfort
- shortness of breath
Your cardiologist will recommend diagnostic tests that can help detect abnormalities in your heart’s function and determine the cause of your palpitations. For instance, an electrocardiogram is a quick, painless and non-invasive test that records and measures your heart’s electrical activity at rest. It helps determine the next step in your diagnosis, where your doctor may recommend other tests like an echocardiogram, Holter monitoring, cardiac CT and MRI scans.
It’s also important to mention that arrhythmias do not always have symptoms. That said, I would recommend that everyone above the age of 40 consider getting a health screening, regardless of symptoms.
What treatments are available for heart arrhythmias?
Treatment really depends on the type of cardiac rhythm disorder you suffer from. Some forms of cardiac arrhythmias are benign and may just need observation. Serious arrhythmias, however, may require medication or a cardiac procedure. One such procedure is an electrophysiology study and catheter ablation. It’s a safe, effective and minimally invasive procedure that allows your cardiologist to study your heart’s electrical system, then deliver radiofrequency energy (heat) or cryotherapy (extreme cold) to a small part of the heart muscles responsible for your arrhythmia.
Another widely used method of treating heart arrhythmias is with cardiovascular implantable electronic devices, including pacemakers and defibrillators. Your doctor may recommend implanting these devices based on your individual heart condition.
This article first appeared in the September 2022 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
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