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Causes of Heart Palpitations

By Linda Ray ; Updated August 14, 2017

People experience heart palpitations when their hearts start beating rapidly or begin fluttering or pounding. According to doctors at the Mayo Clinic, heart palpitations can result from stress, medication, fear and exercise. They also can be caused by a medical condition. Most heart palpitations are not signs of serious complications, the Mayo Clinic doctors say.


Most often, heart palpitations are induced because of environmental factors such as a strong emotional reaction to a situation or person. Heart palpitations can be caused by anxiety over a confrontation or upcoming event that creates nervous feelings. The common fight or flight reaction to outside forces that trigger fear cause the heart to beat rapidly, preparing the body for action. Exercise, particularly steady aerobic exercise, should create heart palpitations and can help to strengthen the heart. Drinking excessive amounts of caffeine or smoking causes heart palpitations in some people.


Drugs that affect the heart, including illegal substance such as methamphetamines or cocaine, increase the heart rate. During an overdose, a person will experience extreme heart palpitations, which could cause heart failure or stroke. Cold medications containing pseudoephedrine can cause heart palpitations because the medication is a stimulant. Asthma medication also contains stimulants and can cause heart palpitations. Most diet pills contain some level of artificial stimulant and can cause heart palpitations.


Increased heart rate and palpitations characterize a number of medical conditions. An overactive thyroid gland, also referred to as hyperthyroidism, can cause palpitations and tachycardia, which is when the heart beats faster than 100 beats per minute.

Heart arrhythmia occurs when the electrical impulses to the heart become irregular and could signal a weak or damaged heart with conditions such as mitral valve prolapse or heart failure. Symptoms of arrhythmia include palpitations and a racing or slowing down of the heartbeats.


Hyperventilation often occurs in response to panic or anxiety and is characterized by rapid and deep over-breathing followed by heart palpitations. While panic attacks are the most common cause of hyperventilation, internal bleeding, an infection or damage to the heart or lungs could also cause it. Lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, asthma and a pulmonary embolism can cause hyperventilation. Pneumonia, sepsis and congestive heart failure also can bring on a bout of hyperventilation and heart palpitations. During the breathing cycle, oxygen is inhaled and carbon dioxide is exhaled. Rapid, shallow breathing causes excessive carbon dioxide levels to build and creates the rapid beating and a pounding heartbeat.

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