Harvard Heart Letter

Skipping a beat - the surprise of palpitations

Palpitations are worrisome but usually aren't dangerous.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the heart's steady thump as it contracts and relaxes nearly 100,000 times a day. Sometimes, though, you may notice that your heart has unexpectedly started to race or pound, or feels like it has skipped a beat. These sensations are called palpitations (pal-pih-TAY-shunz). For most people, palpitations are a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. Others have dozens a day, some so strong that they feel like a heart attack.

Most palpitations are caused by a harmless hiccup in the heart's rhythm. A few reflect a problem in the heart or elsewhere in the body. Sorting out worrisome palpitations from the harmless ones isn't always easy. Doctors can be quick to attribute them to anxiety, depression, or some other emotional or psychological problem. Although sometimes that's exactly right, it's important to first rule out harmful heart rhythms and other physical causes.

A palpitation primer

Palpitations are extremely common. Although most people shrug them off, they worry countless folks enough to consult a primary care physician or cardiologist. Different people experience palpitations in different ways. You might feel as though your heart is fluttering, throbbing, flip-flopping, or pounding, or that it has skipped a beat. Some people feel palpitations as a pounding in the neck; others as a general sense of unease.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »