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What It Means When Your Heart Skips a Beat

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November 5, 2010, Last Updated December 10, 2014

By LOUISE CARR, Contributing Columnist

A skipping heart -- technically called heart palpitations, atrial premature complexes or premature atrial complexes -- actually are a fairly common phenomenon. According to the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term project of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Boston University running since 1948, 33% of men and 32% of women have palpitations or atrial premature complexes without heart disease.

Your heart is one of the organs in your body that you pay very little attention to until it makes its presence felt. Although love, or the sight of an attractive stranger, is said to make your heart skip a beat, the actual experience is a lot less romantic and a little more frightening.

In fact, few things are as frightening as your heart missing a beat.  It can be very unnerving to feel your heart beating out of the blue and out of time. When your heart skips a beat you may fear you’re having a heart attack, or that your fluttering heart is the sign of something serious.

But should you worry when you feel your heart skip a beat? Is a skipping heart serious , do you need to call 911? And what can you do to prevent palpitations and regulate your heart beat?  Are there any natural remedies such as foods or herbs you can eat to prevent heart palpitations?

What Does it Feel Like When Your Heart Skips a Beat?

The experience of heart palpitations varies with each individual. Many people describe it as a fluttering feeling, or a flip-flop motion of the heart in the chest.

You may feel your heart stop for what seems like forever, and then speed up or beat too hard.

When your heart skips a beat it can feel like a heavy pounding in your chest. You may feel a heavier than normal pulse in your throat and neck.

And you don’t need to be active in order to feel your heart skip a beat, it can just as frequently occur when you are sitting or lying still.

Why Is My Heart Skipping?











Skipped heartbeats are commonly caused by premature atrial complexes or premature ventricular complexes. Normally your heart is regulated by a ‘spark plug’ that regularly fires to start the cardiac cycle.

But the premature atrial complexes and premature ventricular complexes that make your heart skip originate from a different source than the normal spark plug.

Premature atrial complexes are early heart beats coming from the upper chambers of the heart, the atria, while premature ventricular complexes are extra heart beats originating from the lower chambers, the ventricle.

Palpitations can also be due to tachycardia, a fast heart beat over 100 beats per minute – compared to the normal 60 to 100 beats per minute, slower for people who exercise regularly. 

Could A Skipping Heart Be A Sign of Something Dangerous?

Premature atrial complexes and premature ventricular complexes are common and most times you won’t even feel them.  Premature ventricular complexes occur in people with normal hearts and even in healthy unborn fetuses, but they are found more often in people with heart abnormalities.

On their own, premature ventricular complexes and palpitations are not dangerous.  But palpitations may indicate a more serious medical condition. In some people, heart palpitations can be symptoms of problems with the heart's speed or rhythms called cardiac arrhythmias.

Although rare, some arrhythmias can signal heart disease. According to the National Health Interview Survey which has monitored health in the United States since 1957, only 53 people in 1,000 have arrhythmias.

When your heart skips a beat it could indicate atrial fibrillation. According to Dr. Heckbert in the Cardiovascular Health Research Unit at the University of Washington, around 1% percent of people suffer from atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is not necessarily life threatening but it can sometimes cause blood to pool and clot in the heart, which can lead to stroke. A 2010 research study by the Group Health Research Institute  suggests people with diabetes are 40% more likely to develop atrial fibrillation. (Read more about diets that control diabetes.)

Palpitations can also be a sign of high blood pressure, a damaged heart muscle or heart failure.

So How Can You Tell If Your Heart Skipping Is Serious?

A skipping heart --technically called a "heart palpitation" is more likely to be connected with a heart problem if one of the following is true:

Call a medical professional as soon as possible if you have chest pain and palpitations, dizziness or faintness, shortness of breath or unusual sweating.

Medical tests are useful if you experience your heart skipping a beat on a regular basis and are worried by it. An electrocardiogram measures the rhythm of the heart but if the skipping is not happening when you have the electrocardiogram it won’t be helpful. A 24-hour electrocardiogram measures the same rhythms over a day or more and an event monitor is worn for up to two months. When you experience a skipped beat you press a button to register the abnormal heart beat.

Things That Cause Your Heart To Skip a Beat

Once you’ve ruled out any serious heart problems, or if you are at low risk of heart disease, there are many things that can cause a skipping heart. Caffeine is one of the most common substances that affects your heart’s beat.

Cold and allergy medicines can also make your heart skip, as can high blood pressure medication, diet pills, nicotine and illegal drugs such as cocaine. According to 2005 research from the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, Greensboro, creatine can sometimes cause palpitations due to atrial fibrillation. An overactive thyroid can cause palpitations.

Low blood sugar levels and anemia can also cause your heart to skip a beat and if you have a fever or are dehydrated you may feel the symptoms.

High levels of salt can elevate your blood pressure, which can in turn cause heart palpitations. (Read more about hidden sources of salt in your diet.)

Strenuous exercise can produce a skipping heart but the palpitations usually start once you’ve climbed off the treadmill. This is because early heart beats disappear at higher heart rates and reappear once the body begins to rest. If you are abnormally out of breath – and not simply out of shape – or you have chest pains as well as palpitations you should get checked out. Otherwise a heart that skips after exercise is not usually a sign of something serious. 

And, yes, your heart could skip a beat for the handsome stranger in line at the store. Strong emotions can cause palpitations – anxiety, stress, fear and excitement.

Who Suffers Most From A Skipping Heart?

Irregular heart rhythms, palpitations and a skipping heart affect young people as well as older people. If your child complains of a skipped beat the advice remains the same as for an adult – if there are no other symptoms and your child is active, the skipped heartbeat is unlikely to indicate anything serious.

But if your child is short of breath or has fainting spells, consult a physician.

What Can You Do To Prevent Your Heart Skipping Beats?

Start taking simple steps to eliminate a skipped heart beat.

1. Cut down on caffeine. Any source of caffeine -- coffee, tea, soft drinks -- can cause heart palpitations. Caffeine is a stimulant, which means that its natural chemical impact is to increase your heart rate.

2. Cut down on alcohol.

3.  Stop smoking.

4.  Avoid Decongestants.  Avoid taking too many decongestants to prevent your heart skipping a beat when you have a cold or flu.

5.  Relaxation Techniques.  Take up relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or progressive deep relaxation of the body in order to calm the intensity of the skipped beats. The September 2007 issue of the Harvard Heart Letter reports that regular yoga or tai chi can cut the number of heart palpitations you experience.

6.  Take Magnesium.  A diet rich in magnesium may prevent your heart skipping a beat. Taking just 300 mg of magnesium daily was shown to stop women’s heart palpitations in a 1999 study from the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. Magnesium-rich foods include green leafy vegetables, whole grains and almonds.

7.  Try Herbs.  Herbs used to treat a skipping heart include hawthorn, valerian, skullcap, and lady’s slipper. However, there is very little scientific evidence concerning herbal supplements to back up anecdotal results.

8. Lower Your Diabetes Risk. As we noted, having diabetes raises your risk for heart palpitations, especially atrial fibrillation. Make sure you know your blood sugar levels and eat a diet that helps lower your risk for diabetes.

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