Palpitations are irregular heartbeats that can occur sporadically or frequently. Although palpitations have many direct causes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the long-term and frequent occurrence of acid reflux, is unlikely to be one of them. However, acid reflux shares some of the same triggers as palpitations and may also lead to them indirectly.
The primary symptom that acid reflux does cause is a burning pain in the chest and upper abdomen, which occurs due to stomach acid leaking back into the food pipe.
In this article, we look at heart palpitations in more detail, including the common causes of palpitations and how they might relate to acid reflux.
Palpitations are irregular heartbeats that can make a person feel as though their heart has skipped a beat. The heart may also feel like it is fluttering in the chest.
Other people with heart palpitations may feel that their heart is beating harder than usual or beating too fast in comparison to its regular rate.
Much of the time, heart palpitations are harmless, and people can think of them as a speed bump in the heart's natural rhythm.
Other times, heart palpitations may signal a problem with the heart or other organs.
Some people experience heart palpitations regularly while others may only have them on rare occasions.
While acid reflux will not usually be a direct cause of heart palpitations, it may lead to them indirectly.
Several factors may also trigger both acid reflux and heart palpitations. When this happens, it is easy to confuse the causes.
For example, alcohol consumption may cause palpitations in some people, and it can also trigger GERD symptoms.
Likewise, too much caffeine may sometimes trigger GERD symptoms, and the effects of caffeine can also cause skipped heartbeats or palpitations.
Eating too much, or eating a particularly heavy meal, may also cause both heart palpitations and acid reflux in some people.
Other possible causes of palpitations can include:
- illegal drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine
- smoking tobacco
- smoking marijuana
- some stimulating medications
- electrolyte imbalance, such as low potassium levels
- low blood sugar
Some medical conditions may cause palpitations, including:
The symptoms of heart palpitations can vary from person-to-person, but may include:
- a fast or racing heartbeat
- the heart pounding in the chest or beating very hard
- a fluttering sensation in the chest
- a feeling of the heart skipping a beat
- a "flip-flopping" sensation in the chest, as though the heart has turned over
These sensations are due to either premature atrial contractions (PACs) or premature ventricular contractions (PVCs). Both of these are extra beats in the heart that happen just before the regular heartbeat, causing the person to feel an odd sensation.
Severe symptoms are also possible alongside heart palpitations. These may include:
- chest pain
- breathing difficulty
- cold sweats
- feeling dizzy or fainting
- tightness, pain, or pressure in the shoulder, neck, or jaw
When they occur together with heart palpitations, these symptoms may signify a heart condition or medical emergency. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek emergency medical attention.
To diagnose heart palpitations, doctors will first perform a physical exam and ask about any symptoms. It may be beneficial for people with heart palpitations to keep a daily journal of their symptoms to discuss with the doctor at the appointment.
The doctor may do some physical checks, such as listening to the heart with a stethoscope or checking the thyroid gland for swelling. Much of the time, they will also order one or more tests to examine the heart in more detail. Possible tests include:
An ECG records impulses in the heart. Doctors may order an ECG to track the rhythm and beats of the heart and check for irregularities.
If a simple ECG does not capture any irregularities, doctors may have the person wear a Holter monitor.
A Holter monitor is a portable ECG that records the heart for an extended continuous period, potentially 24 hours or more. This may be helpful for people who only have palpitations in specific situations, such as when lying down or after a meal.
If palpitations are less frequent, a doctor may ask the individual to wear an event recorder. An event recorder only records the heart when prompted. The user pushes a button when they feel the palpitation, and the recorder picks it up for the doctor to examine later.
People may wear event recorders for much longer than Holter monitors, sometimes keeping them on for up to several weeks.
Doctors will sometimes order an ultrasound of the chest, called an echocardiogram, to view the heart and see how it is looking and working.
Some blood tests may help diagnose underlying causes, such as anemia or thyroid problems.
Doctors usually only treat heart palpitations related to more severe heart conditions.
The treatment can vary in each case, and doctors will thoroughly discuss all of the person's options with them.
For common heart palpitations, a doctor may recommend lifestyle changes.
If palpitations seem to occur around the same time as GERD symptoms, it is likely to be because of the meal the person just ate.
They may be consuming meals that are too large, or their body may be sensitive to a specific food that they are eating.
People can often identify trigger foods by keeping a daily journal of what they eat and any symptoms that they experience. Treating palpitations can sometimes be as simple as removing these foods from the diet.
Avoiding the excessive consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana is also likely to help some people.
For stress-related palpitations, doctors may recommend that people relieve stress by incorporating some of the following activities into their weekly routines:
- tai chi
- deep breathing exercises
- mild-to-moderate exercise
Doing at least one of these activities regularly may help reduce stress, which can cause palpitations in some people.
Palpitations may be a sign of an underlying condition, even in cases where stress triggers them.
Anyone experiencing heart palpitations along with other serious symptoms should seek emergency medical care. These symptoms include:
- chest, back, or shoulder pain
- tightness in the jaw
- shortness of breath
There are a couple of techniques that people can try to stop palpitations when they are occurring. These methods stimulate the vagus nerve, which may help control the heartbeat:
- Valsalva maneuver. Pinch the nose and close the mouth. Try to breathe out of the nose for a couple of seconds to create a feeling of pressure in the head.
- Cold water. Splash cold water on the face for 30 seconds or dunk the head in cold water. This may stimulate a response in the body, slowing down the heart rate.
- Bearing down. Bearing down is the act of clenching the muscles in the stomach and closing the anal sphincter while pushing down as if initiating a bowel movement. This action has the same result as the Valsalva maneuver.
These techniques may work temporarily, but it is vital not to ignore the underlying cause of palpitations. Long-term treatment should be a top priority for people with this symptom.
While GERD or acid reflux is unlikely to cause heart palpitations directly, symptoms associated with GERD may trigger palpitations in some people.
Anyone who is unsure about their symptoms should talk to a doctor, and any severe symptoms indicate that emergency medical care is necessary.