Should I worry about my abnormal heartbeat?

Revere Health Heart of Dixie Cardiology reminds patients that while they may track their heart rate over time and then search online to see if their range is normal, that data, which may indicate “normal” heart rates, cannot take into account other factors such as age, gender, medications, family history and more that may be key in evaluating one's heart condition. Learn more in the attached feature article. | Composite includes images from Pixabay, St. George News

FEATURE — Just as each person is unique, so is every heart rhythm. In the past, doctors, medical professionals and researchers believed that if a heartbeat was outside the norm, there could be an underlying health problem. Fortunately, studies have shown that while some heart rhythms may not be “normal,” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a cause for concern.

“Normal” heart rates

“When you say ‘what is a normal heart rate?’ the answer is, ‘it depends on what you’re doing,’” said Kent Gleed, a cardiologist who specializes in electrophysiology at Revere Health Heart of Dixie Cardiology in St. George.

Many patients believe that if their heart rate is irregular or if they sense things like skipped beats or “flopping” sensations then they must be experiencing symptoms of a heart issue. But, Gleed said, it’s perfectly normal to experience things like premature beats, even if it occasionally causes the person to gasp or feel like they need to catch their breath. Some patients will feel virtually every irregular heartbeat, and others won’t ever notice them.

Understanding and tracking heart information

With the rising popularity of wearable technology, such as Fitbits, Garmin devices, Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Gear, many people have more information than ever about their health. Advances in technology now allow people to track things like calories burned, steps taken, blood pressure and continuous heart rate throughout the day. While this information can be useful to have, it’s important to understand the limitations; devices can track and report on information, but they cannot provide analysis or make any conclusions about a person’s health from that data.

For example, a patient may track their heart rate over time and then search online to see if their range is normal. However, the data online about “normal” heart rates can’t take into account factors like age, gender, medications, family history and more. One study online identifies a normal heart rate as between 60 and 100 beats per minute, but the data was taken from an aggregate of 15,000 young, active military recruits; unless you fall into the same category, that may not reflect what your heart rate should be.

“In the daytime, if you’re being active, climbing stairs, going to the store (and doing other activities), your normal heart rate may be 120 or 130,” Gleed said. “When somebody’s sitting with a heart rate of 95 and they feel normal, that’s great. If you have a heart rate of 35 and feel normal, then that’s great too.”

Reasons to talk to your doctor about your heart

Even though a person may experience some irregularity from time to time, there are some situations when it’s important to talk to their doctor about their heart. If someone is experiencing any of the following three issues, it is important they consult with their doctor about whether they might need to see a cardiologist.

  1. Fatigue.
  2. Fainting.
  3. Frequent irregular rhythms.

Patients who experience slow heart rate often have fatigue, but fatigue doesn’t always mean that the patient has a problem with their heart.

“Fatigue is a symptom of hundreds of medical conditions,” Gleed said. “If patients come in with fatigue and a (low) heart rate, we’ve got to look at a variety of other things. If we have looked at everything else and it is normal, then we look at the heart.”

If low heart rate is causing fatigue, a cardiologist will often recommend a pacemaker to the patient to assist in providing adequate blood flow.

Fainting is another concern, particularly for patients who experience it often. The four main factors that cause someone to faint include the following:

  1. Low blood pressure with a normal heart rate.
  2. No heartbeat.
  3. Extremely rapid heartbeat (above 180 beats per minute).
  4. Seizure.

However, like fatigue, there could be other factors contributing to fainting that don’t have anything to do with someone’s heart.

“When somebody comes in with fainting, especially elderly patients, most of the time its blood pressure, not their heart,” Gleed said.

For that reason it’s a good idea for people to talk to their family doctor if they often feel lightheaded, particularly if this feeling comes when they stand up quickly, Gleed said. That doctor can measure the patient’s blood pressure and find out if it may be causing the fainting or if the fainting is something that should be examined by a cardiologist.

As noted above, it’s perfectly normal to experience an irregular heart rhythm now and then, but when someone frequently experiences a racing heart or a quivering or fluttering sensation, then it’s time to talk to their cardiologist.

“Being in A-fib (atrial fibrillation) predisposes you to strokes. If your heart rhythm is totally irregular and chaotic, regardless of the heart rate, that’s a potential problem,” Gleed said.

Symptoms of A-fib are similar to other heart conditions but often manifest more often or with greater intensity. Those symptoms include tiredness, fatigue, shortness of breath with exertion, dizziness and lightheadedness.

If you or someone you know recognize any of these symptoms of an abnormal heart rhythm, Gleed advises visiting your primary care physician or cardiovascular specialist to find out if they may be warning signs of a more serious heart issue.

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