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When to See a Doctor for an Irregular Heartbeat

May 30, 2024

That old refrain “My heart skipped a beat” isn’t usually followed by “so I called a doctor.” But should it?

On one hand, heart palpitations are so common they’re practically a romantic cliché. Every now and then, though, they need medical attention.

Which presents the question: When should you see a doctor for an irregular heartbeat?

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Many variations of a heartbeat qualify as “irregular.”

Irregular can mean fluttering, skipping, even slower than usual.

“Every awareness of your heartbeat is a palpitation,” says Charles Rouse, MD, a heart rhythm specialist in Fairfield and New Haven Counties.

Luckily, most are harmless, and a normal part of life.

How to tell if your irregular heartbeat is harmless.

Check your watch, and your calendar.

Benign (harmless) palpitations are usually:

  • Short: Lasting just a couple seconds.
  • Infrequent: Occurring less than once a week.

“Almost everyone feels this type of palpitation at some point,” says Dr. Rouse.

Note: If you have chest pain, shortness of breath or are lightheaded, you should always see a doctor — with or without palpitations.

> Related: 5 Tips for Living With AFib

Heart palpitations caused by stress hormones are usually harmless.

The human body is a finely tuned machine, always responding to its environment and any stressors. Occasionally, that causes stress hormones to spike — and, as a result, a brief changeup in heartbeat.

Benign (harmless) heart palpitations can be caused by:

  • Emotional stress, including excitement (when your heart skips a beat!).
  • Physical stress, ex. from fighting off an illness, or being dehydrated.
  • Consuming alcohol or, for some people, too much caffeine.

“Anything that can increase your adrenaline can cause benign palpitations,” says Dr. Rouse. “It typically corrects itself.”

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When to see a doctor about your irregular heartbeat.

“We start to get more concerned when palpitations happen more frequently, or the episodes are longer,” says Dr. Rouse.

To be specific, see a doctor if your palpitations:

  • Occur frequently: More than once a week.
  • Last several minutes: For example, lasting 15 minutes or more.

If either of the above are true — even if a longer episode is a one-time occurrence — schedule a heart evaluation.

An irregular heartbeat can be a symptom of a heart issue.

The above can signal a heart problem, usually AFib or another type of arrhythmia. These conditions can lead to more serious health issues, particularly stroke — unless you get the right treatment.

That’s your key.

“All of these conditions are very manageable,” says Dr. Rouse. “But you do have to see a doctor to figure that out.”

A smartwatch can help monitor things, with a doctor’s guidance.

Plenty of wearables now come equipped with simple ECG technology, which could certainly help you track an irregular heartbeat. First, though, you’ll need training.

“You have to use this tech with a doctor to figure out which symptoms to record and the right context,” says Dr. Rouse. “Then, with the right coaching, it can be extremely helpful.”

So before you buy anything, start analog: Simply review the above lists.

The next time your heart skips a beat, you’ll know whether to call a doctor — or maybe, just maybe, call it love.