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Heart Rhythm Problems: Symptoms - Topic Overview

Heart rhythm problems, called arrhythmias, can cause a few types of symptoms. These symptoms happen because the heart isn't beating regularly or may not be pumping blood as well as normal.

Some of these symptoms include palpitations, lightheadedness, fainting, and shortness of breath.

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Palpitations

Having palpitations means that you are unusually aware of your heartbeat. The experience of palpitations is often described differently by different people. Some people report a vague "fluttering" in their chests or the feeling of a "skipped beat." Others note a "pounding sensation" or feel that the heart is "jumping out of my chest." Palpitations are rarely painful.

What are the different types of palpitations?

The pattern of the palpitations can be very helpful in determining the type of arrhythmia that caused them. If you see a doctor about your palpitations, it is very helpful if you can demonstrate the rhythm and speed of the palpitations by tapping your fingers on a desk or table. This can help your doctor figure out whether the palpitations were the result of an arrhythmia and in some cases may allow a relatively accurate diagnosis as to the specific arrhythmia that caused the palpitations.

Your doctor will likely not diagnose an arrhythmia based on your demonstration. But it can be a very helpful start if you are not experiencing arrhythmia while you are in your doctor's office (which means your doctor will be unable to record the arrhythmia on an EKG during the visit).

How do palpitations cause chest discomfort?

Some people experience rapid heart rates not as palpitations but rather as chest pain. In people who have healthy hearts, palpitations may cause a pounding or thumping sensation that can be painful or uncomfortable, rather than the heavy, tight, or squeezing sensation, called angina, usually associated with heart attacks. In people who have coronary artery disease, a rapid heart rate can cause angina. How you describe your pain may help your doctor figure out whether the chest pain is the result of an abnormal rhythm or angina. In many cases, your doctor may not be sure based strictly on your description. So he or she will probably order an electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG) or further stress testing to evaluate the rhythm or rule out angina.

Lightheadedness

If you have an arrhythmia that causes your heart to beat too fast or too slow, you may feel lightheaded or dizzy. This happens because your heart cannot pump blood effectively during excessively fast or slow heart rates. The ineffective pumping action decreases your blood pressure, reducing the amount of blood that reaches your brain.

The sensation of lightheadedness is a result of this lack of blood flow to the brain. If your blood pressure drops too low, you may feel that you are about to pass out. This sensation is called presyncope. Syncope is the medical term for a temporary loss of consciousness (passing out).

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 09, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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