Palpitations are unusual heart rhythms often perfectly harmless, but in other cases linked with other findings, can be indicative of an underlying heart condition.
A heart rate above 100 beats per minute causes palpitations. Tachycardia is the term used when the heart rate is increased above normal. This can be found in patients suffering from thyrotoxicosis, or in atrial fibrillation where the rate is rapid and irregular.
Other common causes that can momentarily increase the heart rate are stress, caffeine, alcohol and asthma inhalers. It is normally not a problem unless it becomes persistent, or is associated with breathlessness, chest pain or tiredness.
The production of a heart beat is by electrical impulses sent along a pathway in an area between the two sides of the heart and this impulse is then sent to both sides of the heart muscle to cause a contraction. There is a time span between each contraction and this sets the 'pace' at which the heart can comfortably work.
Initially several drugs can control these rhythms e.g. Digoxin. Other drugs include Amiodarone and Verapamil, the former having some unpleasant side effects and regular monitoring of liver function is advisable. Beta blockers which are also used to control high blood pressure, slow the heart down and are a good anti-stress treatment.
The treatment of really fast rapid heart rhythms unresponsive to drugs, may require shock treatment known as Direct Current Cardio version, which means sending a current of electricity through the heart to restore normal rhythm. If the problem becomes recurrent and it is known that this electrical pathway is not functioning properly as with some heart disease, then an artificial pacemaker can be inserted into the chest and attached to the heart, with a tiny battery producing the electrical impulses under controlled conditions. Regular check-ups are needed to assess that the pacemaker is working well and that the battery is not running out.
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