What are Heart Palpitations? | MedStar Health

Feeling like your heart is racing, pounding, or skipping beats

Heart palpitations are often triggered by stress, exercise, or medications and the sensations can be mild or quite uncomfortable. They are usually not harmful, and the only treatment required may be lifestyle modifications or medication to relieve symptoms.

Occasionally, heart palpitations may be a sign of a more serious abnormal heart rhythm, or arrhythmia. If you experience frequent, sustained heart palpitations, chest pain, or fainting, have your heart evaluated by an electrophysiologist, a heart rhythm specialist who diagnoses and treats arrhythmias.

The physicians in our Cardiac Electrophysiology Program are highly trained advanced subspecialists who manage even the most complex arrhythmias.

What causes heart palpitations?

Some common causes include:

  • Alcohol and caffeine

  • Emotions such as stress, anxiety, or fear

  • Exercise

  • Hormonal changes related to menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause

  • Medications that contain stimulants, such as cough and cold drugs with pseudoephedrine

  • Nicotine

  • Sleep deprivation or sleep apnea

Examples of more serious arrhythmias that may cause palpitations include:


Diagnosing the cause of your heart palpitations is the first step to developing a treatment plan. Our specialists may recommend one or more diagnostic and imaging procedures.


An echocardiogram uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of your heart.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

An electrocardiogram, also known as an ECG, measures the heart's electrical activity.

Event monitors

An event monitor is a small device that records the heart's electrical activity. It's similar to an electrocardiogram, but where an electrocardiogram takes place over a few minutes, an event monitor measures heart rhythms over a much longer time.

Holter monitors

A Holter monitor is a small device that records the heart's electrical activity. It's similar to an electrocardiogram, but whereas an electrocardiogram records over a few minutes, a Holter monitor records over the course of a day or two.


Heart palpitations rarely require treatment, although your doctor may recommend ways to avoid triggering them, medication, or cardiac ablation. If your palpitations are caused by an arrhythmia, you may need treatment for the specific condition.

Ask MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute

Have general questions for our heart and vascular program? Email us at AskMHVI@medstar.net. If you have clinically-specific questions, please contact your physician’s office.