The heart muscle needs to beat a certain number of times each minute in order to deliver the blood and oxygen the body needs to function. The number of times the heart beats is called the heart rate or pulse. The pulse can become slower when sleeping or resting, or it can get faster if exercising or responding to an emergency. These are all normal adaptations. However, certain situations can cause palpitations and/or the heart rate to become too fast, which may be a sign of an underlying disease. The first step is to have the cause of any irregularity properly diagnosed so the right treatment options can be explored.
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There is a wide range of what is considered normal for a heart rate. In most cases, the heart rate falls between 60 to 100 beats per minute. Highly conditioned athletes can drop as low as 40, and some people can have heart rates over 100 even in the absence of disease. However, if the heart rate is over 100 beats per minute on a regular basis, a physician should be consulted. Along with beating too fast, the heart can sometimes beat irregularly or skip beats and cause a sensation called palpitations.
A faster than normal heart rate, or tachycardia, and palpitations may cause sensations such as a pounding or racing pulse. In some cases, there is an awareness that the heart is skipping beats or has become irregular. These sensations can be felt in the neck or chest. The National Institutes of Health claims that, in most cases, abnormal heart rhythms are not serious. However, it is important to have any heart rate abnormalities evaluated properly. This is especially important if a fast heart rate or palpitation is accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, chest tightness, fatigue, sweating or confusion. There are various tests that can be run to determine if this symptom is harmless or caused by an underlying disease.
The medical term for irregular heart beats is arrhythmia, and it can be used to describe a fast heart rate, slow heart rate or skipped beats. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, irregular heart rhythms or arrhythmias can occur if the electrical system of the heart stops functioning properly. The cells responsible for signaling the heart to beat may stop firing, fire too fast or become blocked. Heart disease, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease or other conditions that affect the structure and function of the heart can also contribute to developing a fast pulse or missed beats. Being overweight, sedentary, smoking and eating an unhealthy diet can all play a role in developing conditions that cause the heart to beat irregularly.
To determine if a fast heart rate or palpitations are caused by an underlying disease, a physician can run several tests. This includes having the patient wear a monitor for 24 to 48 hours that continuously records the electrical activity of the heart. A diary may be kept to determine if abnormal rhythms coincide with stress, exercise or meals, or if they occur with no known trigger. The diary is also used to record any symptoms that occur which may help to confirm a diagnosis of a particular disease. An electrocardiography, or EKG, does the same as a monitor; however, this test is run for a short period of time in a hospital or doctor's office. These devices can show how often the heart beats out of rhythm, the exact type of electrical activity that is occurring in the heart and the strength of the heart beat. This data can be combined with blood tests, physical exams and other scans to help detect the cause of the arrhythmia and decide if any treatment is necessary.
The best method to treat and manage a fast heart rate or palpitation is determined by the exact cause. If the arrhythmia is determined to not be serious, making lifestyle changes may be all that is necessary. This includes eating healthy, quitting smoking, losing weight and getting regular exercise. Managing stress and avoiding triggers such as alcohol, caffeine and certain foods can also help. If treatment is required, the University of California San Francisco recommends speaking with a physician about medications that can help to regulate the heart rate. In severe cases, surgery to implant a pacemaker or correct abnormalities that are causing the faulty electrical signals may be necessary.