What is it?
A heart palpitation is a perceived abnormality of heart beats. It is characterized by being aware of the feeling of the heart beating inside the chest. People can feel things like abnormally hard, fast, or irregular beats, and pauses. The feeling of palpitation can often be heavily influenced by anxiety and it does not necessarily indicate any “real” heart problems. It is, however, also common that there is some actual structural or functional abnormality of the heart behind it.
Other symptoms associated with palpitation include dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating, headaches, and chest pain.
What causes it?
There are lots and lots of potential causes for palpitation. Some of them include anxiety, stress, coronary heart disease, diseases of the heart muscle, diseases that cause low levels of blood oxygen, and alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine.
What happens during it?
While there are many ways in which heart palpitations can occur and many of them are worth their own post, I’m now going to focus on how they happen if they are not caused by separate conditions.
The heart contracts when the sinoatrial node, a small collection of cells in the right atrium, sends an electrical signal to the muscle cells of the heart. The sinoatrial node has it’s own natural pace which can be altered in many ways, including through signals from a nerve called the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is a long and complicated nerve. It allows two-way communication between many organs, including our brain, heart, throat, and stomach. For example, a recently eaten meal will stimulate the vagus nerve, and sometimes this signal ends up in the heart and causes it to beat faster. There are countless ways in which an environmental stimuli can lead to the vagus nerve not really knowing what to do and sending an inappropriate signal to the heart.
When we are stressed or anxious, more adrenaline and cortisol are released to our blood. They prepare us for action – our body thinks that we are about to run away from a lion or fight an aggressive invader. This process acts largely through our nervous system. High levels of adrenaline and cortisol can cause the vagus nerve to fire signals to our heart to tell it to beat faster. This allows more oxygenated blood to circulate around our body, which in turn allows us to use our muscles more efficiently. Feeling these rapid heartbeats can cause even more anxiety, which again leads to the vagus nerve telling the heart to beat faster.
How can it be treated?
As palpitation is more of a symptom than a condition in itself, the treatment of it depends heavily on what the underlying cause is and how severe it is. This can sometimes mean specialist treatment from cardiologists, while sometimes things like massage and meditation are the best cure.
Sources: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palpitations, http://drsircus.com/medicine/function-vagus-nerve/, http://adanceinmyheart.blogspot.fi/2011/01/we-interrupt-this-program.html