Your Health A-Z

What exactly are heart palpitations and am I in any danger?

In some cases, heart palpitations may be nothing to worry about; however, they can be a symptom of something more serious. A cardiologist who specialises in managing heart rhythm disorders explains.

An electrophysiologist is a cardiologist who specialises in the management of heart rhythm disorders. Dr Razeen Gopal, an electrophysiologist at Mediclinic Panorama, explains what’s going on inside your heart when you experience palpitations – and when you should be worried.

“Palpitations are a subjective feeling that the heart is racing, flip-flopping or missing beats,” says Dr Gopal. “That means what you feel as heart palpitations, say, a feeling like your heart is flip-flopping, may feel different to someone else’s experience of heart palpitations, for example, they may feel like their heart is racing.”

Medically speaking, however, the cause could be related to the heart muscle itself or the nerves running through it. “The heart requires a seamless flow of electricity to make it beat. This electricity runs through a dedicated nervous system housed in muscle within the heart. Disease involving either the nervous system of the heart or its neighbouring muscle may cause palpitations.”

People who have underlying heart disease are more at risk of experiencing heart palpitations than those whose hearts are structurally normal, adds Dr Gopal. This includes people who have previously had a heart attack or heart failure and those with a history of hypertension.

Palpitations could be something to worry about, he cautions. “They may be benign when they’re associated with systemic disease, such as obstructive sleep apnoea, anaemia, and thyroid disease – but they may also be malignant and life-threatening, mandating intervention.” If you have heart palpitations along with light-headedness, chest discomfort or shortness of breath, Dr Gopal suggests you speak to your healthcare provider, as this may indicate a more serious problem.

Heart palpitations are treated by an electrophysiologist, to whom your healthcare provider will likely refer you for further examination, which will reveal if you need treatment. Palpitations are treated through a procedure called ablation, says Dr Gopal. Ablation uses either extreme heat or extreme cold to create tiny scars on the heart tissue, which corrects the heart rhythm. Pacing devices (a pacemaker) may also be used in some cases.

If you’re unsure whether your symptoms are serious or not, book an appointment with your healthcare provider to get them checked out properly.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.