When should you get an irregular heartbeat checked?

Woman holding chest irregular heartbeat

Having a hiccup in your heart rhythm can be uncomfortable – as well as frightening. But when does an extra heartbeat or other unexpected feeling warrant a visit to your doctor?

John Hummel, MD, a heart rhythm specialist at the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital, sheds some light on irregular heart rhythms, or types of arrhythmias, which are fairly common.

“It can be tempting to jump to the worst-case scenario when it comes to your heart, and to think that an irregular heartbeat is a sign of a serious disease,” says Dr. Hummel. “But it doesn't always require treatment.”

The possible causes of an irregular heartbeat can vary widely – from too much caffeine to a more potentially dangerous condition of having your blood pressure skyrocket or plummet.

There are several types of irregular heartbeats. Dr. Hummel explains some people experience an extra heartbeat, a skipped beat, too fast of a beat (called tachycardia) or too slow of a beat (called bradycardia).

When to see a doctor immediately?

Dr. Hummel says it can be difficult for most people to know if an irregular heartbeat is a sign of something more serious.

Go immediately to the doctor if you have additional symptoms with your irregular heartbeat or you’ve had a heart attack or other heart stress. According to Dr. Hummel, those symptoms include fainting, dizziness, chest pain, swelling in your leg or shortness of breath.

“There’s a big difference between sitting in a chair and noticing your heart skipping and having fluttering that makes you feel like I’m going to pass out,” says Dr. Hummel.

“The other issue is whether your heart is structurally normal. If it’s not, abnormal heart rhythms more commonly will increase your risk of stroke or sudden death.”

Look at your actions and environment

Dr. Hummel says external factors could be causing disruptions in your heart rhythm:

  • Too much caffeine or alcohol
  • Dehydration
  • Drug abuse
  • Fever
  • Anemia
  • Emotional distress
  • Sleep apnea
  • Pregnancy
  • Eating or exercising

Dr. Hummel advises you make notes of when you experience irregular heartbeats and share this information with your doctor. Remember, not all unusual heart rhythms will require treatment. "Abnormal heartbeats can come and go, especially in young people,” states Dr. Hummel.

Expert Guide to Heart Health: Answers to more of your heart health questions

What type of tests can help diagnose an irregular heartbeat?

The first test is usually an echocardiogram, which looks at the structure and function of your heart. You may have an exercise stress test on a treadmill or stationary bike to measure your heart’s response to exertion. Patients might also be asked to wear a portable monitoring device (called a Holter monitor) for 24 to 48 hours that records every heartbeat and monitors for irregular heart rhythm.

“We have a wide range of diagnostic tools and we work to figure out what the cause is by looking at your actions and your medical history,” explains Dr. Hummel. He points out some people may have an inherited abnormal heart rhythm. Learn more about genetic heart testing.

The bottom line on your irregular heartbeat

  • If you have skipped heartbeats, you need to pay attention to your body and then get an assessment.
  • The urgency of that assessment is determined by whether you have additional symptoms or structural heart disease.

Ready to learn more about irregular heartbeats?

Learn about diagnosis and treatment of irregular heartbeat at Ohio State, and how to request an appointment.

Request an appointment


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