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That Seemingly Innocent Heart Flutter That You’re Feeling, Is It Serious?

Photo credit: CHAjAMP/Shutterstock

Photo credit: CHAjAMP/Shutterstock

Most of us can recall a time when we’ve had the out of the blue feeling that our heart skipped a beat, fluttering just a bit. Maybe it was because nerves settled in or maybe because you were caught off-guard. Whatever the reason, it is likely that it only lasted a few moments and when the feeling passed, you were left thinking, “What was that, anyway?” Because the reality is, when a heart flutter does occur, it stops us in our tracks. So, in order to get to the bottom of this super-common, but nonetheless mysterious conundrum, we consulted Penn Medicine cardiologist Jeffrey Luebbert, MD. Here, he explains what to do if you experience your heart fluttering while exercising, and when to know if it’s a symptom of a larger issue. 

Can you briefly define heart flutters and heart palpitations? Is there even a difference?

A heart palpitation is a feeling that the heart is fluttering, skipping a beat or beating too fast and could be a symptom of an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).  A symptom is specific to an individual and each person may experience the symptom of an arrhythmia in a different way. Common symptoms of arrhythmias include a sensation that a person’s heart is beating irregularly, dizziness, lightheadedness, palpitations and passing out/loss of consciousness.

If someone is exercising or running when palpitations occur, should they stop?

Any change in symptoms during exercise should direct someone to be evaluated by their doctor. In general, it is recommended that if you are not feeling well when exercising slow down and/or stop. If you continue to feel poorly after stopping or you have an episode of dizziness, lightheadedness or ‘syncope’, which is loss of consciousness, these could be signs of a more serious problem and you should visit the closest emergency room for evaluation.

When Heart Palpitations are Caused by Arrhythmias

Many times heart palpitations are caused by an abnormal heart rhythm or cardiac arrhythmia. There are many different types of arrhythmias; some are harmless and no treatment is necessary, but some have the potential to be dangerous and may be associated with passing out/loss of consciousness or cause someone to die suddenly – ‘sudden death’. If a cardiac arrhythmia is the cause it needs to be followed by a medical professional, many times this professional is a cardiologist (heart doctor).

Some people experience palpitations/flutters caused by arrhythmias that are benign – meaning they will not cause serious problems, cause someone to be hospitalized or shorten their life. These arrhythmias, however, may still require treatment to control symptoms.

Other types of arrhythmias can be extremely dangerous and may cause the same symptoms or other more concerning symptoms. One symptom that is never normal is ‘syncope’. If someone passes out/has loss of consciousness, it is never normal and could be a sign of a potentially serious condition. We suggest if a symptom is new or changing then a person should have an evaluation to exclude dangerous conditions.

Are there ways to stop arrhythmias?

There are treatments that can stop or control arrhythmias. After seeing a physician, a plan can be made and may include medical therapy or a specialized procedure called an ablation for long-term control. An ablation targets and destroys small areas of cells in the heart thought to be the source of the electrical malfunction. This procedure has the potential to restore a normal heart beat, exercise capacity and quality of life.

There are a few things to remember if you experience heart flutters or palpitations. They may be normal – a sensation that happens to most of us at some point in our lifetime, maybe before you head on stage to give a presentation or when you are caught love-struck. But when they last more than a few seconds, occur frequently and are accompanied by a racing heartbeat, lightheadedness, syncope, chest pain or shortness of breath, it is time to get them checked out sooner than later.

For more information about Penn Heart and Vascular, click here.