Causes of heart palpitations

Updated April 17, 2017

A heart palpitation describes the feeling or sensation of the heart skipping a beat, fluttering, pounding or racing. Although heart palpitations can occur as a symptom of a more serious condition, such as an irregular heartbeat or an overactive thyroid, they aren't usually serious or harmful, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Heart palpitations accompanied by other symptoms such as confusion, dizziness, light-headedness or difficulty breathing may signal a more serious condition. A number of triggers, internal and external, can cause heart palpitations in the absence of a serious disease.


Anxiety, characterized by extreme feelings of fear, nervousness and uncertainty, occurs when a person experiences stress or a perceived threat. Although everyone feels anxious every now and then, approximately 4.7 percent of the population in the United Kingdom suffer from anxiety disorders in which their feelings of fearfulness interfere with daily activities, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

Anxiety triggers the “fight or flight” response of the body. The cells in the nervous system release excess amounts of the hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine. This triggers an increase in heart rate and breathing rate while constricting blood vessels and tightening muscles. This can cause a variety of physical symptoms including irritability, fatigue, muscle tension and heart palpitations.

Strenuous Exercise

Doctors suggest participating in regular physical activity -- not only to increase your fitness level, but to decrease the risk for developing certain types of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. The heart is a muscle, and by performing aerobic exercises -- those that promote the circulation of oxygen through the blood -- the heart becomes stronger and increases its capacity for exercise. Participating in strenuous exercise before the heart is strong enough can result in heart palpitations.


Caffeine, classified as a stimulant, occurs naturally in chocolate, tea and coffee. Although small amounts of caffeine usually fail to produce any negative effects in the body, ingesting too much can produce symptoms. Caffeine dilates the blood vessels increasing blood pressure. It also stimulates the heart to beat more strongly. These effects can cause heart palpitations.


Nicotine, an addictive drug found in tobacco products, can also cause heart palpitations. It causes an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and flow of blood from the heart, according to the American Heart Association. The added stress on the heart can produce heart palpitations.


Medications classified as stimulants -- including prescription and non-prescription medications -- can trigger heart palpitations. This includes over-the-counter cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, prescription thyroid medications, some medications prescribed to treat heart arrhythmias, beta blocker medications used to treat high blood pressure and some asthma inhalers, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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About the Author

Stephanie Chandler is a freelance writer whose master's degree in biomedical science and over 15 years experience in the scientific and pharmaceutical professions provide her with the knowledge to contribute to health topics. Chandler has been writing for corporations and small businesses since 1991. In addition to writing scientific papers and procedures, her articles are published on and other websites.