What to know about ectopic heartbeats
Ectopic beats are common. People may feel like their heart is skipping a beat or is producing an extra beat.
In this article, we look at the causes, symptoms, and treatments for ectopic heartbeats.
What is an ectopic heartbeat?
Ectopic heartbeats are premature or extra heartbeats.
An ectopic heartbeat is when the heart either skips a beat or adds an extra beat. They are also called premature heartbeats.
Ectopic heartbeats are usually not a cause for concern, and they may occur for no known reason. Despite the skipped or added beat, the heart otherwise functions normally.
People may be worried if they feel their heartbeat skipping. But it is not a sign of a serious problem. Anxiety often causes ectopic beats, and they will usually go away by themselves.
There are two types of ectopic heartbeat:
- Premature atrial contractions (PAC), which originate in the upper chambers, or atria.
- Premature ventricular contractions (PVC), which originate in the lower chambers, or ventricles.
Ectopic heartbeats are common in adults. They are less common in children and typically occur due to an underlying heart condition.
When a child experiences an ectopic heartbeat, it is often a PAC. It is usually harmless.
The chances of having a PVC increase as people get older. A heart attack or family history of PVC may increase the risk of someone developing PVCs as they age.
Causes of ectopic heartbeats
Ectopic heartbeats have several potential causes or risk factors that can increase the chance of their occurrence.
Possible causes of ectopic heartbeats include:
- caffeinated drinks and foods containing caffeine
- anxiety or stress
- recreational drug use
- drinking alcohol
- decreased potassium levels
- certain prescription medications
- some allergy and cold medications
- asthma medications
Also, several potential underlying conditions may cause or be risk factors for ectopic heartbeats, including:
- a family history of ectopic heartbeats
- previous history of a heart attack
- heart disease
Ectopic heartbeats can occur with no symptoms. In other instances, people may realize that their heart skipped or had an extra beat by feeling it in their chest.
Some people may experience more extreme symptoms that are similar to the symptoms of more serious heart conditions.
Typical symptoms of ectopic heartbeats may include:
- an extra awareness of the heart beating
- a feeling of faintness or dizziness
- a sensation of the heart stopping for a moment
- a racing heartbeat
- a fluttering sensation in the chest
A heart ultrasound can help a doctor make a diagnosis.
Some people may not have any symptoms. A person may never know they have had an ectopic heartbeat.
If someone does experience symptoms, and they occur regularly, they should speak to their doctor.
Doctors can diagnose ectopic heartbeats by discussing the symptoms a person is experiencing. They will likely hold a stethoscope to the person's chest to listen for an irregular beat.
A doctor may also order other tests to help determine the cause of the ectopic heartbeat. These tests may help them rule out more dangerous causes.
Diagnostic tests used may include:
- a Holter monitor, a heartbeat device that a person wears for 24 hours
- electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures the heart's rhythm and electrical signals
- echocardiogram, or heart ultrasound
- coronary angiography, or heart X-ray
- MRI or CT scans
- exercise testing
In most cases, doctors do not treat an ectopic heartbeat. Typically, it will go away with no intervention.
However, if symptoms do not go away on their own, a doctor is likely to want to explore the underlying condition. Once determined, they will treat the cause, which will help stop further ectopic heartbeats from occurring.
In other cases, people can help prevent further ectopic heartbeats through lifestyle changes. Often, this will involve finding what triggers them.
Once someone identifies the triggers, they can reduce or eliminate their contact with them. Triggers can include stress, smoking, or alcohol.
Other changes a person can try include, reducing caffeine and exercising regularly.
Typically, a person will have no further complications from ectopic heartbeats. However, in some uncommon cases, they may develop:
- Ventricular tachycardia, which is an irregular and rapid heartbeat.
- Arrhythmias, which involves issues with the heart's rhythm.
People who have had a previous heart attack are at a greater, though low, risk of cardiac arrest and death.
Ectopic beats and pregnancy
During pregnancy, it is normal to experience ectopic beats and arrhythmias.
Ectopic beats and arrhythmias are normal during pregnancy.
According to research published in Cardiology and Therapy, during pregnancy, people experience many physiological changes that increase the demand placed on their cardiovascular system.
These changes lead to an increase in heat rate and may cause people to notice extra beats.
It is also quite common for the fetus to experience extra beats. In most case, extra beats or even faster-than-normal beats are not a cause of undue concern for doctors.
Typically, a doctor will discover the ectopic beats in a fetus and decide if any treatment is needed.
Other types of irregular heartbeat
Ectopic heartbeats are just one type of irregular heartbeats a person may experience in their lifetime. Irregular heartbeats can also involve the heart beating too fast, too slow, or in a different rhythm than usual.
An example of an irregular heartbeat is atrial fibrillation (AF). When AF occurs, the upper chambers of the heart are contracting at odd intervals, which causes the irregular beat to occur. AF is not common in children.
Other irregular heartbeats that people can have include:
- supraventricular tachycardia, where the electrical signals come from the wrong area
- atrial flutter, where the upper chamber of the heart fires too quickly
- ventricular tachycardia, where there are abnormal electrical signals in the lower chambers of the heart
A person may never realize that they have experienced an ectopic heartbeat. In other cases, they may feel as though their heart is skipping or having an extra beat. Normally, ectopic heartbeats are not a cause for concern.
If ectopic beats do not clear naturally or are recurring frequently, a person should speak to their doctor.
Typical treatment involves avoiding triggers, such as smoking or drinking alcohol, and treating the underlying cause of the ectopic beats if necessary.