Heart Palpitations In Women: Is It 'Just Anxiety,' Or Something More?
Do you ever feel like your heart has skipped a beat or is pounding, racing, or doing flip-flops? Most of the time these sensations, called heart palpitations, are harmless and merely bothersome, but sometimes they can signal a serious, possibly life-threatening arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm). Women -- who are at higher risk than men for certain dangerous arrhythmias, and subsequent stroke in some cases -- are often told that their palpitations are "just due to anxiety." But even though they can be triggered by anxiety, it is important for doctors to rule out any dangerous arrhythmias before dismissing the palpitations as only the result of worrying.
Her Heart Palpitations
Unfortunately, heart palpitations are extremely common. They differ from one person to the next and can vary with a woman's age and hormone levels.
- Age: Palpitations caused by atrial fibrillation, a potentially dangerous, irregular heartbeat that compromises the heart's ability to pump blood throughout the body, are more prevalent in both men and women over age 65.
- Menstrual cycle: Palpitations that feel like skips or a running heartbeat often come with a woman's menstrual cycle. Looping arrhythmia, a type of fast heart rhythm that results when a "short circuit" occurs in the electrical system of the heart, may also vary with the cycle.
- Pregnancy: Pregnancy can elicit non-dangerous yet bothersome arrhythmias, but in some young women may also increase the incidence of dangerous but rare arrhythmias, such as those precipitated by Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. If you have had palpitations in the past and are planning to become pregnant, it's important to address them beforehand, as they are more difficult to manage during pregnancy.
- Menopause: Menopause is the most common time to have non-dangerous palpitations.
In addition, some medications, such as certain antibiotics and asthma drugs, can trigger heart palpitations. This can be particularly problematic for women who are predisposed to a type of rare but deadly heart rhythm disorder called long QT syndrome.
Treating Heart Palpitations
The good news is that there is a variety of ways to address and treat heart palpitations, including those caused by the most dangerous arrhythmias.
- Electrophysiology: Electrophysiology is a test that helps doctors find the cause of heart rhythm disturbances. As with an angiogram, the doctor threads a catheter, or thin flexible tube, to the heart through a vein in the groin, and then maps the heart's electrical activity. Depending on the cause of the arrhythmia, the electrophysiology team may be able to fix it with a procedure right then and there.
If you have heart palpitations, odds are you have nothing to worry about. But don't leave it to chance: if your doctor tells you, "Don't worry, it's nothing," insist that he or she prove it by monitoring and recording your palpitations to rule out any dangerous arrhythmias.