Normally, your heart keeps a steady, regular rhythm that’s between 60 to 100 beats per minute. If you have an irregular heartbeat, your heart might be beating faster or slower than this. You could also feel that your heart has skipped a beat, or you may notice extra beats that are out of rhythm.
What causes an irregular heartbeat?
Irregular heartbeats have many causes that range from stress to certain medications, medical procedures, and heart conditions. Let’s examine some of the most common causes of irregular heartbeats in more detail…
1. Consuming Too Much Caffeine
Whether you consume caffeine occasionally or can’t function without your morning coffee, it’s important to be mindful of your caffeine intake and tolerance.Each person responds to caffeine a little differently, so finding out how much is a comfortable intake for your body is crucial for your health.
How does caffeine affect heart rate?
Caffeine is a stimulant, and it naturally increases your heart rate. Some people who use caffeine a lot might not feel this increase, while those who only use caffeine a few times a week may notice it.
Be particularly careful when consuming caffeinated beverages and other caffeine sources such as caffeinated chewing gum or pills. These items are very concentrated and make it easy to consume excessive amounts of caffeine in a short period.
Talk to your doctor.
Always check with your doctor before consuming caffeine if you’re pregnant or have any pre-existing health issues or mental health concerns. If you experience the following symptoms, let your doctor know:
- Racing heartbeat
- Heightened anxiety
Caffeine can increase your anxiety levels, which leads us to our next cause of an irregular heartbeat: stress.
From work worries to family issues, it’s normal to feel stressed from time to time. However, if you’re stressed out on a regular basis, you might be at an increased risk for an irregular heartbeat.
How does stress affect the body?
Stress produces both physical and mental changes in the body. When you’re stressed, you might have difficulty falling or staying asleep. People who have chronic stress tend to get colds more frequently than others who aren’t stressed, too. If stress isn’t properly managed, it may increase your risk of high blood pressure, obesity, and other risk factors for cardiovascular conditions.
Stress management is key.
If you experience stress, it can help to implement calming techniques in your life, such as:
- Deep breathing
- Talking to friends
As we mentioned, high stress levels increase your risk of high blood pressure. Let’s find out more about how elevated blood pressure could change your heart rhythm in the next slide.
3. Having High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is elevated pressure in the arteries that carry blood from your heart. It’s usually caused by a narrowing of your arteries. If your blood pressure is high on a regular basis, your heartbeat might get out of rhythm.
What’s a normal blood pressure?
Currently, doctors consider a normal blood pressure to be less than 120/80 mmHg. Outside of the doctor’s office, you can check your blood pressure at home with an at-home measuring device that automatically inflates. If your blood pressure readings are consistently above 130/80 mmHg, you meet the new criteria for high blood pressure.
Implement lifestyle changes.
To lower your blood pressure, your doctor might suggest lifestyle changes like:
- Weight loss
- A reduced-salt diet
High blood pressure is one of the most common risk factors for heart conditions and the irregular heart rhythms that these conditions can cause. Diabetes, another common risk factor for these heart issues, could also affect your heartbeat. Let’s check it out.
Diabetes happens when your body can’t make or use insulin in an effective way. This change increases the level of sugar (glucose) in your blood. If blood sugar remains high for a long time or is uncontrolled, fat could build up in your artery walls, which can cause arteries to narrow. This can lead to a type of heart disease called coronary artery disease.
What are the signs of diabetes?
While some people don’t experience symptoms, others do. If you have diabetes, you might:
- Frequently feel extremely thirsty
- Lose weight without trying
- Urinate more often than usual
- Feel more tired than usual
- Have an increased appetite
- Have blurry vision
Implement lifestyle changes.
People with diabetes are encouraged to make lifestyle changes that often include:
- Losing weight
- Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
- Becoming more physically active
- Checking blood sugar levels each day
We read that coronary artery disease could increase your risk of an irregular heartbeat. Let’s discover how on the next slide.
5. Coronary Artery Disease
In the United States, coronary artery disease is the most frequently diagnosed type of heart disease and occurs when the heart arteries become inflamed or blocked by cholesterol deposits. Coronary artery disease usually develops over decades, so you might not notice any symptoms at first, but it’s important to look out for them, as the condition may lead to heart attacks for some patients.
What are the symptoms?
When blood flow to your heart decreases, you will likely experience the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue after exertion or exercise
Your doctor might be able to detect certain signs of coronary artery disease at a routine checkup through blood tests and listening to your heart beat. Other common tests include an electrocardiogram (a recording of your heart’s electrical activity), an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of your heart), or a stress test.
Implement lifestyle changes.
Common lifestyle changes for people with coronary artery disease include:
- Quitting smoking
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Taking proper medication to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate
Heart attacks are more likely in patients who have experienced a heart attack. We’ll learn more on the next slide.
6. Suffering a Heart Attack
Heart attacks occur when blood flow to your heart is cut off, typically by a blood clot. Heart attacks are a medical emergency, so you should call for an ambulance immediately if you believe you are experience one.
What are the symptoms of a heart attack?
Common symptoms of a heart attack may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Seeking medical help immediately is critical for people suffering a heart attack. Doctors can give you pain relievers and blood thinners to keep any existing blood clots from increasing in size and to reduce the risk of getting new blood clots. You may need to have a stent, bypass, or other surgical procedure if symptoms progress.
Treatment after a heart attack.
After a heart attack, most people attend a cardiac rehabilitation program. These programs aim to help you understand how to make appropriate lifestyle changes to improve your heart health, including taking proper medications.
We’ll take a look at another heart condition that could cause an irregular heartbeat on the next slide.
7. Coping with Cardiomyopathy
Cardiomyopathy creates changes in your heart muscles. It can cause muscles to become thicker, thinner, or stiffer than usual, and scar tissue could form. Cardiomyopathy makes it harder for your heart to pump properly, and it could lead to heart failure.
What are the symptoms of cardiomyopathy?
If you have cardiomyopathy, you might notice the following symptoms:
- An increased heartbeat
- Fluttering sensation in your chest
- Swollen feet, ankles and/or legs
- A bloated abdomen
- A cough while you are lying down
- Shortness of breath
Seeking help from your doctor is vital.
During your visit, your clinician will perform a cardiovascular examination to check for the disease, and you’ll be asked whether your symptoms are worsened by exercise.
Other tests may include:
- Chest x-ray
- Treadmill stress test
- Cardiac catheterization procedure
What are my treatment options?
Your doctor will discuss a proper treatment plan with you. Treatment options often include:
- Septal ablation
- Radio frequency ablation
- Using a pacemaker. You might also have a ventricular assist device or an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.
While damage to the heart muscle can trigger an irregular heartbeat, you could also experience this symptom if you have problems with the valves of your heart. Read on to discover more about heart valve disease.
8. Heart Valve Disease
Heart valve disease occurs when the valves of your heart can’t open or close properly. The condition could affect just one of your heart’s four valves, or more than one at a time. Some people can have heart valve disease for many years without even knowing it.
What are the symptoms of heart valve disease?
If you have heart valve disease, you might notice some or all of the following symptoms:
- An irregular heartbeat
- Swelling in your ankles and legs
- Shortness of breath during exercise
What to expect when you visit your doctor
During a physical exam, your healthcare provider will listen to your heartbeat to listen for a heart murmur. In some cases, you may be required to take a cardiac MRI and stress tests.
If your condition is in the early stages, your doctor might require you to attend regular monitoring appointments and start medication. Eventually, most patients with heart valve disease will need to have a heart valve repair or heart valve replacement operation, and doctors will provide guidance on when this should take place and on the various surgical methods that may be appropriate for the patient’s needs.
Some of the causes of irregular heartbeats are hereditary. Let’s investigate one of the genetic conditions that could cause this symptom on the next slide.
9. Long QT Syndrome
Long QT syndrome is a condition that changes the electrical activity of your heart. People with the condition have episodes of very fast, irregular heartbeats that may lead to fainting, seizures, or sudden death. It’s a serious condition that requires medical assistance.
Am I at risk?
You’re at an increased risk of this syndrome if you have the following:
- A relative with the condition
- Family history of the condition
- Low potassium, calcium, or magnesium in your blood
What does treatment involve?
Long QT syndrome can be difficult to detect, and some people are misdiagnosed. To determine diagnosis, screening for long QT syndrome starts with an electrocardiogram and often a stress test or genetic testing.
If the diagnosis is confirmed, your doctor will develop a treatment plan. Treatment options for long QT syndrome include medications like beta-blockers and mexiletine, and you might need to have an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator or a surgical procedure called a left cardiac sympathetic denervation.
What about lifestyle changes?
Your doctor might suggest lifestyle modifications to reduce the risk of irregular heartbeats. These changes may include:
- Avoiding vigorous exercise and contact sports
- Avoiding high-stress situations
- Reducing exposure to loud, startling noises
- Avoiding medications that might cause irregularities in your heart rhythm
Speaking of medications, let’s turn the page to uncover more about some pills that could alter your heart’s normal rhythm.
10. Using Certain Medications
When you have allergies, a cough, or a cold, you might reach for an over-the-counter decongestant from your local pharmacy. It’s important, however, to keep in mind that not all medications have a positive effect on your heart rate.
Which medicines can increase my heart rate?
The following substances can increase your heart rate or make you feel like your heart is pounding:
- Medicines that contain phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine.
- Tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline or serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors such as duloxetine or venlafaxine
- Certain antibiotics, including amoxicillin and azithromycin
What else can increase heart rate?
Some herbal remedies and supplements could cause a fast or irregular heartbeat, too, including:
- Bitter orange
To protect your heart, always ask your doctor before taking any medicines or supplements, especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions. Be sure to see your doctor if you notice persistent or concerning changes in your heartbeat with any type of medicine, vitamin, or herbal supplement.
Another type of medicine that could lead to heart rate changes is levothyroxine, a medicine used to treat hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). Patients who take levothyroxine could have a racing heartbeat with an unsteady rhythm, and they might experience chest pain. Hypothyroidism itself can also cause heartbeat irregularities. Let’s read on to find out more about this condition.
11. Underactive Thyroid
An underactive thyroid develops when your thyroid doesn’t make enough of certain hormones. One of the key symptoms is a slower-than-normal heartbeat. Other symptoms tend to gradually appear over time and include:
- Excessive tiredness
- An increased sensitivity to cold
- A puffy face
- A hoarse voice
- Weight gain
- Joint pain
Who is at risk?
Females over the age of 60 have an elevated risk of developing an underactive thyroid, and it’s more common in people who have autoimmune diseases like celiac disease or type 1 diabetes.
To check for an underactive thyroid, your doctor will perform a simple blood test to measure your thyroid hormone levels. If your levels are too low, you’ll be placed on synthetic versions of these hormones. Levothyroxine is the standard medication that is used today. You might experience heart palpitations if you take too much of this medicine. To prevent this, your doctor will conduct frequent blood tests to check your medication levels so that the dose can be adjusted as needed.
Now that we’ve learned about 11 different causes of an irregular heartbeat, let’s recap and learn about steps you can take to prevent it.
How Can I Prevent an Irregular Heartbeat?
As we’ve discovered, you could have an irregular heartbeat simply due to stress or too much caffeine intake, and you might also develop it as a complication of a medical condition like heart valve disease. It may occur from the use of certain medicines, or even be triggered by a medical emergency like a heart attack.
There are many ways you can prevent the likelihood of developing an irregular heartbeat. They include:
- Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Engaging in regular physical activity
- Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Seeing your doctor for regular checkups
- Monitoring your blood pressure at home
Always ask your doctor before you start taking any new medicines or supplements, and make an appointment with a healthcare provider as soon as possible if you notice any changes in your heartbeat or if you experience the key symptoms we’ve covered here.