Listen to Your Heart

Heart palpitations can predict development of atrial fibrillation

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Often a slow or racing heartbeat isn't a reason for concern. In some cases, however, it may suggest a heightened risk for a more serious heart condition.

A large cohort study found that an abnormal heartbeat with characteristics such as fast heart rate or skipped heart beats can predict the development of atrial fibrillation, a common heart arrhythmia, in both men and women.

"Talk to your doctor about the effects of palpitations."

Dr. Audhild Nyrnes, first author of the study from the Department of Community Medicine at the University of Tromsø in Norway, cautioned that she could not conclude with certainty that the link between atrial fibrillation and heart palpitations was causal.

"However, in this case it is not unreasonable to propose a causal relationship. 'Palpitations' are used subjectively to describe irregular heart beats or accelerated heart rate, and it is likely that a proportion of palpitations also represent cases of irregular heart rhythm, which is a main characteristic of (atrial fibrillation)," she said.

Most palpitations are harmless. The challenge is detecting those that could suggest a patient may later develop atrial fibrillation.

During the Tromsø Study, researchers recruited 22,815 Norwegian men and women over the age of 25 between 1994 and 1995. The average age of participants was 46, and patients were followed for 11 years.

At the beginning of the study, investigators collected data including height, weight, blood pressure, heart rate and total and HDL cholesterol. They also recorded information related to heart palpitations that was found among participants.

They then cross-checked diagnostic registries and national death registers for cases of patient atrial fibrillation documented through electrocardiogram and searched hospital records for diagnoses of cerebrovascular or cardiovascular events without a recorded registry diagnosis of arrhythmia.

Researchers found that over the course of the 11-year study, atrial fibrillation was recorded in 361 women, or 3 percent of participants, and 461 men, 4 percent.

They determined that the strongest predictors for developing the heart arrhythmia were age, high blood pressure and self-reported palpitations.

They found women who reported frequent palpitations had a 62 percent increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation, while men were at a 91 percent increased risk.

Investigators also found that several lifestyle-related risk factors were related to palpitations, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, though it was unclear whether modifying these factors would reduce the risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

No significant association was found between lifestyle factors and atrial fibrillation. However, hypertension was confirmed as a significant risk factor.

The study was recently published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 15, 2012
Last Updated:
July 31, 2012