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Palpitations is the medical term for an abnormal awareness a patient has about their own heart beat.  The feeling is independent of the actual heart rate (for example, a normal patient will not feel their heart beating even in severe cases of tachycardia).  While a person can pick up on their own heart beat if they concentrate on the phenomena, in palpitations, the patient is aware of their heart rate often to the exclusion of all other stimuli. 

Several conditions can cause palpitations, such as overexertion, stimulants, alcohol, diseases that increase the metabolic rate, and a panic attack.  However, occasional intermittent palpiations occur in almost everyone and don't indicate an underlying medical condition.  However frequent or long lasting palpitations, or palpitations combined with other symptoms usually indicate a serious condition and medical treatment should be sought as soon as possible.  The three main classes of disorders that cause palpitations are:

  • Diseases that increase the heart rate and circulation of blood, including anemia and pregnancy;
  • A reaction to an underlying disease that affects circulation, such as hypoglycemia and heart disease;
  • Arrhythmia

In order to detect the causes of palpitations, an extensive medical history is often necessary as this symptom rarely shows up when a doctor is present and tests such as an EKG can be performed.  However, blood tests and long term EKG monitoring are often effective in finding a cause.  An echocardiogram is often helpful. 

In Family Practice, Arlene Cuddy starts having palpitations when she is out shopping with her daughters.

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