Forget what the love songs tell you: There’s nothing exciting about your heart skipping a beat. In fact, when your heart doesn’t beat normally, its electrical system is likely out of step.
When your heart beats too fast, too slow, or skips irregularly, it is called arrhythmia.
Skipping a Beat
If your heart’s ever skipped a beat, you’ve had what are called heart palpitations. It might feel like your heart is throbbing, pounding, or fluttering. Or you simply might not feel well.
Think of a palpitation as a “hiccup” for your heart. It beats on schedule, and then hiccup! A brief pause, and you’re back to normal. Until it happens again.
Luckily, for most people, these hiccups happen only once in a while. But other people can have dozens of uncomfortable palpitations each day. Some can be so strong they feel like a heart attack.
Heart palpitations can happen for no reason. Other times, they’re brought on by certain triggers, including some of the following:
- Stress and anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Smoking and nicotine
- Low blood sugar
- Low potassium
- Certain recreational drugs or medications
- Dietary supplements like ginseng and ephedra
- Too much caffeine
What to Do
You can’t always prepare for heart palpitations. But to head them off, you can try simple lifestyle changes, like:
- Avoiding caffeine
- Getting enough sleep
- Avoiding or cutting back on alcohol
- Stopping smoking
- Staying away from stimulant drugs, including cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine
- Finding ways to relax and manage stress
If you think you’re having an attack, try these to get your heartbeat back to normal:
- Breathe deeply. It will help you relax until your palpitations pass.
- Splash your face with cold water. It stimulates a nerve that controls your heart rate.
- Don’t panic. Stress and anxiety will make your palpitations worse.
When to Call a Doctor
If you’re short of breath, dizzy, have chest pains, or faint, talk to your doctor right away. These could be signs of serious heart disease.
What If Your Heart Races?
The normal heart averages between 60 and 100 beats per minute. When your heart beats faster than this, you have a condition called tachycardia.
When your heart races, it’s working too hard. It doesn’t have enough time to fill with blood or pump it to the rest of your body. You might have heart palpitations or chest pain. You may also feel dizzy or faint.
If you have heart disease or some types of lung disease, your chances of having tachycardia could be higher than normal. If you were born with an abnormal heart structure, this is called a congenital heart defect, and it might increase your odds as well.
Other factors, like fever, dehydration, or drinking too much caffeine, can also make your heart race.
How to Slow It Down
Your doctor may suggest medical treatment if your heart races too often or it lasts too long. In the meantime, they might recommend the following things to slow it down:
- Cut back on coffee or alcohol.
- Stop smoking.
- Get more rest.
- Close your eyes and gently press on your eyeballs.
- Pinch your nostrils closed while blowing air through your nose -- a technique called the Valsalva maneuver.
When to Call a Doctor
If you faint, have trouble breathing, or have chest pain that lasts longer than a few minutes, talk to your doctor right away or call 911.
When Your Heart Rate Slows
Sometimes our hearts beat slower than 60 beats per minute. This is called bradycardia. For some people, like athletes and healthy, young adults, this heart rate could be normal. But for others, it could cause your brain and other organs to not get enough oxygen to function like they should.
If that’s the case, you may feel faint, dizzy, weak, or short of breath. You might also have chest pains, memory problems, or tire easily.
Bradycardia is caused by a problem with your heart’s electrical system. Your heart simply isn’t getting the signal to beat properly. This can happen for some or all of the following reasons:
- Damage to heart tissue from age or heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Congenital heart problems, which are present from birth
- An underactive thyroid
- Sleep disorders
- Inflammatory disorders, such as lupus
- Medications for heart problems, high blood pressure, or mental illness
How to Fix the Signals
There are really no home treatments for a slow heartbeat. Your doctor will likely need to fix the underlying cause in order to ease your symptoms and raise your heart rate so your body gets the blood it needs. Treatments could include medications or a pacemaker.
When to Call a Doctor
Seek medical help right away or call 911 if you faint, have a hard time breathing, or have chest pain that lasts more than a few minutes.