To rule out these causes, a doctor is likely to perform a physical examination and order tests such as an EKG (electrocardiogram), echocardiogram and/or an exercise stress test. One way of detecting the irregular beats and distinguishing them from more serious heart rhythm problems is through having the patient wear a Holter monitor or event recorder to track the heart's rhythm while the person is involved in every day activities.
A blood test can detect abnormalities in cardiac enzymes that might signal heart muscle damage or electrolyte imbalances that might be contributing to the problem. It can also rule out causes such as a hyperactive thyroid, drug toxicity or abuse of cocaine or amphetamines.
Many of the possible causes of PVCs and PACs are serious medical conditions that require prompt treatment. And it's important to distinguish irregular beats from a more serious irregular rhythm such as atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation causes pooling of blood in the upper chambers of the heart, creating the risk of blood clots and a stroke. Premature contractions, on the other hand, do not interfere with the heart's normal rhythm in this way.
Reasons for the ectopic beats are not always easy to find. They could result from age-related diseases or changes in the heart or other organs of the body. Or, more likely, they are related to anxiety, stress or lifestyle issues such as smoking, diet or caffeine or alcohol use.
In an otherwise healthy person, even very frequent ectopic beats are no reason for concern, although the patient may want treatment to relieve the symptoms.
Triggers vary from person to person, but patients are usually advised to quit smoking and to cut back on or eliminate caffeine and alcohol use. In many individuals, regular exercise can help regulate heart beats as well as reduce stress and contribute to better overall health.
For most individuals, the most important treatment is stress reduction through controlled breathing, yoga, meditation or biofeedback. Simply knowing the ectopic beats are normal and no cause for alarm goes a long way toward relieving anxiety.
Serious palpitations require medical treatment, often with a beta blocker or a calcium channel blocker.
What patients experiencing vigorous thumping in the chest tend to fear most is that their hearts will go out of control. An arrhythmia in the lower chambers of the heart, known as ventricular fibrillation, is a life threatening condition.
PVCs can occur in persons with severe heart problems that create a risk of ventricular fibrillation. But if you have a healthy heart with abnormal beats, you should rest assured that your heart is not going out of control.
This information was submitted by Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury and is meant to complement, not replace the advice and care you receive from your health care provider.