Do you ever feel like your heart is pounding or fluttering much faster than normal? Maybe it’s like your heart is skipping beats or you feel your pulse in your neck and chest. You may be experiencing heart palpitations. They may last for only a few seconds and they can occur at any time. This includes when you’re moving around, sitting or lying down, or standing still.
The good news is that not all cases of fast heartbeat mean you have a heart condition. Sometimes the palpitations are caused by things that make your heart work harder, like stress, illness, dehydration, or exercise.
Other causes may include:
- other medical conditions
- certain medications
- illegal drugs
- tobacco products
Keep reading to learn six ways you can manage heart palpitations at home, when you should see your doctor, and tips for a healthy heart.
Stress can trigger or worsen heart palpitations. That’s because stress and excitement can make your adrenaline spike. Managing your stress through relaxation can help. Good options include meditation, tai chi, and yoga.
Try sitting cross-legged and taking a slow breath in through your nostrils and then out through your mouth. Repeat until you feel calm.
You should also focus on relaxing throughout the day, not just when you feel palpitations or a racing heart. Stop and take five deep breaths every 1-2 hours to help calm your mind and keep you relaxed. Keeping your general stress levels low can help you avoid episodes of fast heartbeat and lower your resting heart rate over time. Biofeedback and guided imagery are also effective options.
The vagus nerve has many functions, including connecting your brain to your heart. Vagal maneuvers stimulate the vagus nerve, and may help regulate fast heartbeat. You can stimulate the vagus nerve at home, but you should get your doctor’s approval first.
Here are a few ways you can stimulate the nerve:
- Take a cold shower, splash cold water on your face, or apply a cold towel or icepack to your face for 20-30 seconds. The “shock” of the cold water helps stimulate the nerve.
- Chant the word “Om” or cough or gag.
- Hold your breath or bear down like you’re having a bowel movement.
For best results, perform these maneuvers while laying on your back. Your doctor can show you how to perform them correctly.
Dehydration can cause heart palpitations. That’s because your blood contains water, so when you become dehydrated, your blood can become thicker. The thicker your blood is, the harder your heart has to work to move it through your veins. That can increase your pulse rate and potentially lead to palpitations.
If you feel your pulse climb, reach for a glass of water. If you notice your urine is dark yellow, drink more fluids to prevent palpitations.
Electrolytes help move electrical signals throughout your body. Electrical signals are important for the proper functioning of your heart. Some electrolytes that can benefit your heart health include:
Most of these electrolytes are best obtained from foods. Avocados, bananas, sweet potatoes, and spinach are great sources of potassium. To increase your intake of calcium, eat more dark leafy greens and dairy products. Dark leafy greens are also a great source of magnesium, and so are nuts and fish. Most people get enough sodium in their diet with packaged foods such as deli meats and canned soups.
Supplements may help maintain your electrolyte balance, but talk to your doctor before taking any new supplements. Too many electrolytes can cause problems. If you suspect you may have an imbalance, your doctor can test your urine and blood to confirm.
There are many substances that may make you more likely to have a fast heartbeat. Eliminating these things from your daily routine may lessen or even stop your symptoms. They include:
- caffeinated beverages and foods
- tobacco products or marijuana
- excessive alcohol
- certain cold and cough medications
- appetite suppressants
- drugs used to treat mental illnesses
- high blood pressure medications
- illegal drugs like cocaine, speed, or methamphetamines
Your own triggers will likely be unique to you. Try keeping a list of the things you consume that may cause your heart palpitations. If possible, avoid any items you think may be causing your symptoms and see if your symptoms stop. Talk to your doctor if you think any prescription medications may be causing your symptoms.
In many cases of heart palpitations, no treatment is necessary. Instead, you should pay attention to when you’re experiencing your palpitations and avoid activities, foods, or anything else that brings them on.
You may find it helpful to write down when you experience the palpitations to see if you can identify a trigger. Keeping a log may also be useful if you experience more palpitations over time. You can take this information to your doctor at future appointments.
If your doctor identifies a cause for your palpitations, they may recommend treatment. For example, if your diagnostic tests uncover that you have heart disease, your doctor will move forward with a treatment plan in that area. Treatment options for heart disease may include medications, surgery, or implantation of a device like a pacemaker.
Talk with your doctor if you notice your heart rate is faster than normal. Doctors cannot always pinpoint the cause of heart palpitations. They will need to rule out heart rhythm disorders like tachycardia and other medical conditions like hyperthyroidism.
There is typically little risk of complications with heart palpitations unless they’re caused by an underlying heart condition. If they’re caused by a heart condition, you may experience:
- fainting if your heart beats too quickly and causes your blood pressure to drop
- cardiac arrest if your palpitations are caused by arrhythmias and your heart isn’t beating efficiently
- stroke if your palpitations are caused by atrial fibrillation
- heart failure if your heart isn’t pumping well for a long period of time
Speak with your doctor if you have palpitations with any other symptoms or if you have other concerns about your health.
At your appointment, your doctor will likely ask for your medical history, what symptoms you’re experiencing, what medications you’re taking, and then give you a physical exam. It may be difficult to find the cause of your palpitations. Your doctor may order further tests or refer to you a cardiologist.
Tests for heart palpitations may include an electrocardiogram (EKG), which shows the electrical activity of your heart. You may also have an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound test that helps your doctor visualize the different parts of your heart.
Other options include a stress test, chest X-ray, and ambulatory cardiac monitor test. In some cases, your doctor may also want to run more invasive tests, like an electrophysiology study or cardiac catheterization.
Most cases of heart palpitations are not considered serious unless you have underlying heart disease. Your doctor still needs to know what you’re experiencing, but your heart palpitations may not need special treatment beyond lifestyle measures. Avoiding triggers may help reduce or eliminate your symptoms.
The American Heart Association explains that there are seven things you can do to protect yourself from heart disease. They call these tips their Life’s Simple 7.
1. Exercise moderately at least two and a half hours each week.
If you’d rather go hard, you can get the same heart-healthy benefits with 75 minutes of vigorous activity. Exercise intensity is unique to you. Exercise that’s moderate intensity for you may be vigorous for someone else. Moderate exercise should feel somewhat difficult, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation. Vigorous exercise should feel very challenging and you’ll only be able to get a few words out at a time between breaths.
2. Keep your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol counts low.
Exercise can help with this. Limiting your intake of saturated fats is another lifestyle measure you can take. Sometimes, though, high cholesterol is genetic. Get tested and start medication, if necessary.
3. Eat a diet with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
You can even look for foods with the American Heart Association’s check mark of approval.
4. Get your blood pressure checked.
High blood pressure often has no symptoms. Keeping yours in check means eating well, exercising, and taking medications if you need them.
5. Keep your weight in the healthy range.
Being overweight or obese can increase your chances of developing heart disease. Losing weight can help with anything from your cholesterol counts to your blood pressure levels.
6. Know your blood sugar.
Adults with diabetes have a higher risk of dying from heart disease. Keep blood sugars within recommended ranges. Eating well, exercising, and regulating your levels with medication can help.
7. Stop smoking.
There are many benefits to stopping smoking, including lowering your chances of developing heart disease and stroke, lung disease, and certain cancers.