Occasionally people become very aware of the beating of their own heart. This experience is called palpitations.
When this happens the heart is felt to be racing at a great speed, or beating very slowly or irregularly or even skipping beats. This can be quite alarming. However, most palpitations are not dangerous. They do not mean that you have heart disease or that you are about to have a heart attack.
They are experienced by almost everybody at some time or another and are frequently caused by drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, by anger, fear, physical exercise or even stomach upsets.
Palpitations can be caused by heart disease
However, in some cases palpitations are caused by heart disease. Then they can be very noticeable and most uncomfortable. They usually cause great anxiety. In these cases, also, the heart beats extremely fast, extremely slowly or very irregularly.
These attacks can be rare or they might occur daily. Some attacks of palpitations last for only a few minutes, sometimes they might continue for hours. Sufferers might feel faint or dizzy. Their palms and the soles of their feet will sweat.
If palpitations are accompanied by chest pain and faintness a doctor should be informed without delay as the problem needs to be investigated as soon as possible.
Almost certainly a person suffering from this type of severe palpitations will feel extremely anxious and will need to be kept quiet and calm.
How the normal heart works
To understand how and why palpitations occur, it is necessary to know something about the workings of the heart. The heart is formed from four chambers, two upper ones (the right and left atria) and two lower ones (the right and left ventricles).
Basically the heart is a muscle controlled by the right atrium. The heart's own natural "pacemaker", called the "Sinus Node", is found within this atrium. The Sinus Node generates electrical signals which cause the atrium to contract and pump the blood down into the ventricles.
The atria and the ventricles are connected by a "junction" called the Atrial-Ventricular node or "AV junction". Before the electrical impulse reaches the ventricles there is a slight pause. Then the pulse enters the ventricles causing them to contract and send blood from the heart to the lungs and the entire body.
When the heart is working normally the impulse from the heart's natural pacemaker enables the atria and ventricles to beat regularly and in the right order. This produces a heartbeat of between 50 and 100 beats a minute. This beat can be felt at a number of points in the body. The most usual of these is at the artery at the front of the wrist, but it is also to be found at the temples, in the front of the neck just above the collar bone and behind the knee.
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