Premature Ventricular Contractions: The First Time My Heart Skipped a Beat
Admit it. The title of this little sharepost sounds romantic, doesn’t it? My heart skipped a beat. Zingwent the strings of my heart. Well my heart went Boom when she crossed that room…
Ah, love is grand, but palpitations…not so much.
My first experience with skipped beats happened in high school, which is typical for those who have mitral valve prolapse or a “heart murmur,” usually a benign condition. Hormones of adolescence can trigger these sometimes noticeable “blips” on the heart’s radar screen, but contrary to what we may feel, these are not actually skipped beats.
Premature Ventricular Contractions or Atrial Contractions (PVCs or PACs) are actually the heart’s way of making up for a pause with an extra beat which often feels forceful and gets our attention.
Any time we are paying attention to our hearts we probably aren’t having a good time. The heartbeat ideally should be unnoticeable to us. Still, millions of Americans are familiar with palpitations.
I have lived with PVCs and little quick runs of beats for a very long time. My doctors have had me wear a holter monitor during daily activities and counted thousands of PVCs or PACs in a single day but assured me they were not harmful and not to pay attention to them. Easy for them to say! I have learned over the years that too much caffeine or alcohol, not enough sleep, low levels of potassium (taking a diuretic without eating a banana for example) and that old favorite standby, stress…contribute mightily to palpitations. But so can love and excitement and a good scary movie. It’s okay. Generally speaking, your heart can take it.
For several years, I have taken a beta blocker medication (Propranolol) which helps greatly by slowing my heartbeat and calming the palpitations or at least my awareness of them. Beta blockers are used for stage fright for similar reasons - to slow a nervous, racing heart. If you are bothered by skipped beats, ask your cardiologist if a beta blocker could help.
Although most palpitations are benign, sometimes they can become problematic. When I was teaching high school, I once made the mistake of combining caffeine, a popular diet medication, and a diuretic on the same day. I was young and healthy - how could it hurt? By that evening, during Back to School Night, I found out.
Instead of being occasional, my palpitations became my heartbeat, and were quite unpleasant. They worried me enough to stop by the ER on the way home, where I was admitted to the CCU because my doctor was concerned that my irregular beats could trigger ventricular fibrillation, a lethal arrythmia. All night long I was awakened and given potassium to drink and watched closely. By morning my heartbeat was completely normal. But it was a lessen I never forgot.
So use your common sense. Eat and drink sensibly, get enough rest, don’t use stimulants, listen to your body, and don’t be afraid of exercise - it can help palpitations! If your heart is skipping beats, and it worries you, be proactive. Ask your doctor to check it out for you. I’ll bet you come away from your appointment much relieved.
Leslie wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Heart Health.