This post is a bit of a departure from my usual sort, so if you’re a regular follower of my blog, please bear with me as I talk about something near and dear to me: my heart (and yours).
I first started having heart palpitations in the 7th grade. Forty years later, I still have them. Worse than ever. But over the last four decades, I’ve gained a lot of wisdom and a quiet (if not begrudging) acceptance of my situation.
This post is broken into 3 parts. First is My Story because, over the years I have found great comfort in knowing that I am not alone. And maybe, in hearing my story, you will find comfort, too.
In Part 2 of this post, I’ll share some possible causes of heart palpitations.
And lastly, in Part 3, I’ll share what works for me. I’m not a doctor and I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I have learned a few tricks along the way that have helped ease the distress and anxiety that comes along with persistent heart palpitations, and as a result, have lessened the frequency and severity of them. My hope is, these tips will help you too.
Forty years after my first “episode,” I can still remember the moment with alarming clarity. I had been working on the Presidential Youth Fitness Award Challenge and had just finished running. As soon as I sat down on the gymnasium floor to rest, my heart felt as though it was skipping rope. All by itself.
I was certain I was having a heart attack, and would die on the dirty floor in my sweaty, smelly gym uniform.
In the first of what would be a long string of visits to the doctor over the years, I was told that I was suffering from anxiety. And that there was nothing wrong with my heart.
I was thirteen years old! And while being a (shy and unpopular) teenager is by its very nature an anxiety-producing time in one’s life, even I knew that what was happening to me was more than just anxiety.
Over the years, the episodes continued, as did my worry. With each and every bout, I was certain I was going to keel over and die. As I grew older and the episodes became more frequent, my worry turned into full on panic.
The panic and anxiety eventually took on a life of its own. I began to fear going places where I had previously had an episode. Eventually, all I ever wanted to do was stay home. Alone. I began isolating myself from people mainly because having an episode when I was around someone freaked them out.
I remember a time in the early 1980’s when I was working at the University of Chicago. I was on the train platform in the evening after work when my heart got “stuck” in fast mode. Though I’d been standing still, it felt as though I’d been sprinting, and nothing I did would slow it down.
The fear was overwhelming and I recall falling to my knees. Someone called an ambulance and I was rushed to the hospital. When I arrived, my heart was beating at a rate of over 200 beats per minute. After receiving an injection of something from the doctor to slow my heart, it began to calm down.
Over the years, I’ve been to the emergency room more times than I care to remember. Every time I was sent away with the some variation of this admonishment: “There is nothing wrong with your heart. You need to learn to get a grip.”
Eventually, I began to think I really was crazy. That I had somehow manufactured the symptoms. Even the people in my life who loved me got tired of hearing me complain. I felt like the little boy who cried wolf.
And so I sought the help of a psychiatrist, who put me on heavy medications that made me feel like a zombie. The good news was that, when an episode would strike, I did not feel fear. In fact, I felt nothing at all. Ever. It was not a fun way to live. Eventually I stopped taking the medication.
Years later (I think it was around 1992), I moved to Napa, California and found a new doctor who promptly referred me to a cardiologist to have my heart checked out. It had never occurred to me over the years to see a heart specialist. I was so relieved to finally be going to a doctor who would, God willing, have some answers.
The first thing the cardiologist did was order a stress EKG. I stepped on the treadmill, hooked up to wires, when my heart began to do its thing.
“There!” I exclaimed. He shook his head. “I don’t see anything,” he said. I could not believe my ears. “But it’s skipping all over the place. You have to be able to see something!” Again he shook his head, and this time he wore a look of pity on his face. But it wasn’t the look on his face that upset me. It was the words that came out of his mouth.
“You’re crazy. There is nothing wrong with your heart.”
I heard nothing else he said after that. Instead I tore the electrodes off my body, leapt off the treadmill and grabbed my clothes. I dressed as fast as I could and hustled out of his office. When I got in my car I cried and raged and slammed my fists on the steering wheel.
And my heart palpitations got worse. A lot worse. I was going to die. Right there, in the parking lot of my cardiologists office. I just knew it. And wouldn’t that just serve him right!?
Once I had collected myself, I drove to the public library to get a book for my (then) boyfriend, who was building a house and asked me to find a book on heating and air conditioning systems.
That’s when the miracle happened.
I found the section I was looking for and began thumbing through the books. I pulled one off the shelf and another book tumbled to the floor. I bent down to pick it up and the hair on my arms stood at attention. It was called Confronting Mitral Valve Prolapse Syndrome.
On the front cover was a list of symptoms associated with this heart condition: Awareness of Heartbeat, Fluttering in Chest, Rapid or Forceful Heartbeat, Panic or Anxiety Attacks, and so on. I turned the book over to read the back cover blurb. I immediately began to cry. There, in bold letters, it said:
“YOU ARE NOT CRAZY. MVPS IS REAL!”
I raced to the checkout counter, then sprinted to my car. It was the night before Thanksgiving and I sat in my car long after the library had closed and read the book cover to cover by the dim light of my interior dome light. The following day I called my mom and asked her if I could borrow enough money to go to Alabama. To the one and only (at least then) Mitral Valve Prolapse Center at the Alabama Heart Clinic.
At the clinic, I was run through a series of tests including an echocardiogram of the heart to check for Mitral Valve Prolapse, and a “tilt table” test to check for dysautonomia, both of which make up the condition called Mitral Valve Prolapse Syndrome. I tested positive on both.
I’ve included more information about Mitral Valve Prolapse Syndrome in the next section, so I won’t go into that here, but what I will say here is that I believe that most (if not all) people who suffer from recurring benign heart palpitations (which includes “extra” or skipped beats, tachycardia or anything that makes you feel as though your heart is not beating properly) also suffer from this syndrome.
Since I am not a doctor, I cannot tell you for sure that this is true. It’s just what I believe. If you’re a sufferer of heart palpitations, read the section below, check out the resources, and decide for yourself.
What Causes Heart Palpitations Anyway?
For most of my life, my “episodes” would last a couple of weeks. If I was lucky, I’d go months in between episodes. But two years ago, after undergoing four surgeries for breast cancer (while simultaneously going into menopause), they started and, until recently hadn’t stopped, even for a day.
Below I’ve compiled a list of what I believe to be the 12 most common causes—or triggers—of heart palpitations.
- Magnesium Deficiency – According this article put out by Natural News, an estimated 68 to 80 percent of the United States population is deficient in magnesium, an essential mineral which, among other things is responsible for maintaining a normal heart rhythm. But before you rush out and buy some magnesium, be sure to read Part 3 of this post, where I’ve included information on the exact type of magnesium you should buy (tip: the stuff you buy at the drug store, and even your local vitamin store is not the type you should use).
- Low blood sugar – I’m prone to low blood sugar episodes. They typically occur just before lunch and also before dinner. If I don’t eat on time, I start to feel sweaty and jittery, and if I don’t eat immediately, my heart will bounce like a basketball in my chest, and it’s very hard to get it back under control.
- Caffeine and other stimulants – caffeine is a known stimulant and will immediately cause me heart palpitations. Additionally, there are “hidden” stimulants in many beverages, such as taurine, guarana, ginseng, etc. Even green tea has caffeine. Beware of these ingredients if you’re sensitive to stimulants. Sometimes I also find that eating sugar/chocolate in the evening will cause palpitations.
- Alcohol – Quite a number of people have told me that drinking alcohol will cause them heart palpitations. I’ve had this happen on occasion myself, but usually only when I’m drinking something on an empty stomach.
- Dehydration – even mild dehydration can cause heart palpitations. Keep water with you always, even during the night.
- Not enough sleep – My heart palpitations are always worse when I’m not getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, lack of adequate sleep has become an epidemic in our fast-paced over-achieving society.
- Stress and anxiety – Over the years I’ve noticed that my heart beats like a champ during stressful periods. It’s afterward, when the stress is over, that it will start skipping like a maniac.I also suffer from periodic anxiety or panic attacks, which almost certainly will bring on the heart palpitations, or worsen them if they occur during an episode.
- Overstimulation – I’ll explain more about this in Part 3 of this post, but basically, the more amped up (excited) I get, the more likely I am to have a bout of palpitations.
- Sitting or lying in the wrong position – For most of my life, lying on my left side was sure to bring on palpitations. Now, however, it’s my right side! I also find that sitting in a reclined position can also bring them on or make them worse.
- Getting sick – I can usually tell when I’m coming down with something. When my body is fighting a virus, my heart palpitations will be terrible for a day or two before I start to experience symptoms.
- Stopping exercising too quickly – I frequently find that if I don’t take the time to cool down after an intense workout—if I simply stop and sit down to rest—I will often experience palpitations.
- Menopause – It is estimated that 25% to 40% of women, even those who never had heart palpitations before, will develop them in menopause (sometimes even during peri-menopause).
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably made some variation of the following statement: But my husband/sister/friend constantly drinks caffeine (never sleeps, is constantly stressed, etc) and never gets heart palpitations. Why do I? It’s not fair!!
First, I agree. It’s NOT fair! But then, life isn’t fair. With the exception of number 1 above (and possibly number 12, I think of the items list above more as “triggers” rather than actual causes of heart palpitations.
I believe that most people who suffer from palpitations also suffer from Mitral Valve Prolapse Syndrome (MVPS).
Mitral Valve Prolapse Syndrome – The True Cause of Heart Palpitations
What is Mitral Valve Prolapse Syndrome (MVPS)? MVPS consists of two separate but related disorders: Mitral Valve Prolapse and Dysautonomia.
Mitral Valve Prolapse
The mitral valve is the main valve in the left chamber of the heart. In someone with mitral valve prolapse (also known as floppy valve syndrome, systolic click murmur syndrome, and Barlow’s syndrome, named after the doctor who discovered the disorder in 1966), the two valve flaps of the mitral valve do not close properly, allowing a small amount of blood to leak backward through the valve.
It is estimated that MVP affects 10-25% of the entire population, though most people who have it are completely unaware of it and their health is not affected.
The autonomic nervous system is composed of two systems; the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. It controls virtually all bodily functions including respiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, and digestion. When this system is out of balance it can cause a myriad of symptoms, including heart palpitations, panic attacks, anxiety, fatigue, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and more.
This combination of symptoms is known as MVP Syndrome. MVPS is not life threatening. It can, however, be lifestyle threatening (as I eluded to in My Story above).
It is estimated that 40% of people with MVP also have dysautonomia.
Diagnosis of MVPS can be tricky. Normally, a diagnosis of MVPS is made by physical examination, a careful medical history, and an echocardiogram. In addition, other tests may be performed to confirm the diagnosis of dysautonomia, such as a tilt table test.
However, such tests can be limiting. For example, MVP does not always show up on an echocardiogram. Thus, MVPS is a “clinical” diagnosis, and may be based on a patient’s history of symptoms as well as the patient’s family history. (It’s interesting to note that the vast majority of people with MVPS do have a strong hereditary link.)
In my case, while I was affirmatively diagnosed with MVPS at the Alabama Heart Clinic, since that time, two echocardiograms have shown I do not have a prolapsed mitral valve. However, with a strong family history of MVPS (my mother had it, even though she too was diagnosed with an “anxiety disorder,”) and two of my sisters have it as well.
With the volume and frequency of symptoms I have experienced over forty years, I have no doubt that MVPS is the correct diagnosis for me.
Symptoms of MVPS include, but are not limited to:
- Heart palpitations (“extra” or skipped beats, tachycardia, or other feeling that your heart is beating irregularly)
- Fatigue (this is the most commonly reported symptom)
- Shortness of Breath
- Panic or Anxiety Attacks
- Chest Pain or Tightness
- Dizziness, Shakes and Jitters
- Sleeping Difficulties
- Migraine Headaches
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
For further information about MVPS, check out the following resources:
- The Society for Mitral Valve Prolapse Syndrome/Dysautonomia at: www.mitralvalveprolapse.com
- Thoughts on Anxiety, Stress and Managing an Irregular Heartbeat (blog) at: www.lifeoffbeat.com
- The Mitral Valve Prolapse Center (Birmingham, Alabama) at: http://mvpctr.com/
A Word about Cardiologists:
In my experience, I have yet to find a cardiologist with a thorough understanding of MVPS, which apparently translates into a general lack of sympathy for those who suffer the symptoms of the condition. Perhaps this is because MVPS is not a life-threatening condition.
Therefore, the burden falls on us, the sufferers, to not only understand the condition, but also to find ways to help ourselves deal with and manage our symptoms. In Part 3 of this post (which will air next week), I will share 12 Ways to Ease Heart Palpitations (Naturally).
In the meantime, if you are a fellow heart palpitation sufferer, I’d love to hear your story. Drop a comment below or email me at: Suzanne@suzannevince.com.