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5 Heart Rate Myths Debunked

By David Freeman
WebMD Feature

Most of the time, you’re probably blissfully unaware of your heart's ceaseless activity -- nearly 100,000 beats per day, or about 37 million beats per year and 3 billion in an average lifetime.

But not always. Maybe your pulse suddenly races for no apparent reason. Maybe your heart throbs. Maybe it flutters or seems to skip a beat. When it does, you wonder: Is this normal?

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That can be a tricky question, especially if you don't know the facts about heart rate and rhythm. Here are five common myths -- and the truth about each one.

Myth No. 1: An erratic heartbeat means you’re having a heart attack.

Rarely. It's fairly common to feel your heart flutter, flip-flop, or skip a beat from time to time. If you monitor the heart rhythm of any person long enough, almost everyone will display the occasional skipped or extra beat. It is very unusual for these sensations (without accompanying chest pain or shortness of breath) to indicate the occurrence of a heart attack. If the feelings of skipping or flip-flopping are new or frequent, or if the sensation is more of a fluttering, the sensations may suggest the presence of an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).

"The vast majority of arrhythmias are benign," says Gordon F. Tomaselli, MD, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. But that doesn't mean you should ignore arrhythmias. Some arrhythmias raise the risk of a stroke, heart failure, and sudden death. So it’s prudent to alert a doctor about any erratic beats (especially if new or frequent) -- even in the absence of bothersome symptoms.

Arrhythmias can affect the heart’s upper chambers (atria) or -- more ominously, but much less frequently -- the lower chambers (ventricles). The most common atrial arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation (often called "AFib," for short), causes the heart to beat irregularly and makes stroke more likely. More than 2 million Americans have AFib.

AFib often causes a rapid heart rate, but it can also cause a slow heart rate or have no effect on heart rate. An ECG can help diagnose AFib.

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