"Ectopic" means something that is in an odd place or position. In the case of an ectopic beat, that oddly placed something is your heartbeat.
You may hear people call this condition an early, missed, or extra heartbeat. It happens because something goes wrong with your heart's electrical system.
The idea of your heartbeat going rogue may sound alarming. But in most cases, an ectopic beat is a harmless condition. It's also a common one. It's more common in older people.
How It Happens
Your heart contains four main sections, called chambers. The upper two are the atria, and the lower two are the ventricles.
Electrical signals control your heartbeat. These signals normally come from an area of cells known as the sinus node, which is in the upper right atrium.
During a typical heartbeat, these electrical signals cause the two atria to squeeze or "contract." Afterward, the two ventricles do likewise.
In some cases, electrical signals can also come from outside of the sinus node. These can cause either the atria or the ventricles to squeeze a little too soon. The result: an ectopic beat.
Types of Ectopic Beats
Not all ectopic beats are the same. There are two main types:
Premature atrial contractions (PACs). These are ectopic beats that happen in the upper chambers of the heart.
Premature ventricular contractions (PVCs). These ectopic beats take place in the lower chambers of the heart.
Ectopic beats happen more commonly in the atria than in the ventricles.
If you have ectopic beats, you may not notice any symptoms. If you do have symptoms, the most common are sensations in your chest such as:
- Pounding or jumping
- Skipped or missed heartbeat
- Become more aware that your heart is beating
Causes of Ectopic Beats
Doctors aren't always sure what causes an ectopic beat, but some things can trigger it, such as:
If you feel your heart flutter or miss a beat now and then, that's normal. It's usually nothing to worry about.
But if your heart seems to miss or skip a beat regularly, or more than it used to, tell your doctor. They may be able to diagnose an ectopic beat by listening to your heart.
The doctor may also ask you to wear a Holter monitor, a device that keeps tabs on your heart rhythm. It will help evaluate the beats, check how often they're happening, and make sure there are no other problems besides the ectopic beats.
Even if you don't have any symptoms, one of these tests may reveal that you have an ectopic beat.
In some cases, medication may be a solution. These include beta-blockers and other drugs that change the way the heart responds to hormones or electrical signals.
There's some evidence that an ectopic beat can raise your chances of getting heart trouble or lung disease. That's another good reason to talk to your doctor about anything about your heart that doesn't seem normal.