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Heart palpitations are rapid or irregular heartbeats that can make you feel as if your heart is racing, fluttering or “skipping a beat.”
The heart has an electrical system that coordinates the activity of the four chambers that pump blood. The heart has a natural pacemaker, called the sinus node. The sinus node sends signals at regular times to the rest of the heart’s conduction system, a group of muscle cells in the walls of the heart. These cells send electrical signals to the heart muscles that cause it to contract to pump blood.
Sometimes, other areas of the heart send signals that activate the electrical system before the sinus node can. These are called premature (early) beats, which is a type of irregular heartbeat. Examples of early beats include:
People without heart conditions can have these early beats quite often and not realize they are having them. Others can feel these early beats.
The specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine — the leading providers of pediatric heart care in Louisville and Southern Indiana — can help your child if they are experiencing an irregular heartbeat or palpitations.
The board-certified and fellowship-trained specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute have the skills and experience to provide a pinpoint diagnosis and determine what treatment, if any, is needed.
Sometimes, palpitations are caused by an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) and may be a sign of a serious medical condition. Heart disease, genetic factors, chemical imbalances in the blood, infections, medications and injuries to the heart all can cause arrhythmias. The heart also can have episodes of fast rhythms, or tachycardias, that can be felt as palpitations. Caffeine, stress and other stimulants that make your heart speed up can cause these early beats to happen more often.
Palpitations are very common and usually not dangerous. Children and young adults can be more aware of an irregular heartbeat due to how the heart reacts to exercise and stress. During exercise or stress, the heart can naturally speed up, called sinus tachycardia, which is normal.
Some children have extra connections in their heart’s electrical system. This can cause the heart to speed up in an abnormal fashion.
Most palpitations are common. However, if your child experiences frequent palpitations or palpitations along with symptoms such as fainting, chest pain, sweating or shortness of breath, a physician should examine him or her as soon as possible.
A physical exam and family history can help physicians find the cause of palpitations or irregular heartbeats. Many children with palpitations will have a normal heart exam. If the exam is irregular, the child may have a heart issue (for example, cardiomyopathy) that is causing the irregular heartbeat. If your child is fainting along with a very fast heartbeat, it could indicate something serious like ventricular tachycardia. Either way, our specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute will be able to evaluate you for all potential heart issues.
Your pediatric cardiologist may examine the child’s heart function using an echocardiogram. This test may not show the rhythm issue, but can help doctors rule out any structure and function issues in the heart. Norton Children’s Heart Institute has 28 tele-echo locations throughout Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
Your child may be given a Holter monitor, a portable monitor that records heart rhythm for 24 hours to help diagnose a rhythm issue. If the rhythm issue tends to occur during exercise, your child might also have an exercise test.
If your doctor thinks your child may have ventricular tachycardia, your child may need to be seen in the heart catheterization lab. Cardiologists there will induce a rapid heartbeat under monitored, controlled conditions, in order to fully make the correct diagnosis.
Children who experience early heartbeats such as atrial and ventricular contractions (AVCs and PVCs) usually do not need any therapy. However, they should do their best to avoid things that cause the irregular heartbeat, such as caffeine. Medicines and/or certain electrophysiology procedures can control these palpitations if they continually interrupt a child’s daily life.
Several medications and treatments are available for different types of palpitations — the key is to have your child evaluated so that any potential life-threatening irregular rhythms can be found. If your child faints while experiencing a racing heart, he or she should be evaluated immediately by a physician.