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Irregular heartbeat can be warning sign

The palpitations, flutters, lurches and skipped beats of your heart rhythm may be harmless glitches or warning signs of a serious condition. What you are experiencing is arrhythmia, which is a deviation in the heart's normal beating pattern.

Heartbeat irregularities often are no reason for alarm, although they can be telling you to start taking better care of yourself.

Everyone experiences glitches in heart rhythms now and then, according to Dr. Edward L.S. Pritchett, associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.

"But your heart rhythms may also be disturbed by your emotional state, physical condition or what you eat and drink," said Dr. Douglas Zipes, professor of medicine, Karannert Institute of Cardiology, Indiana School of Medicine, Indianapolis.

Here are some common causes of arrhythmias:

Emotional stress, anxiety, fear or anger.

Fatigue, particularly if prolonged or accompanied by stress.

Flu or other viral infections, especially if a high fever also is present.

Premenstrual variations in blood levels of the female hormones can cause water and sodium retention and disrupt the body's mineral balance, which can disturb the heart rate.

Stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine.

Alcohol interferes with the heart's electrical system, especially if consumed in large quantities or in amounts more generous than normal.

Overzealous dieting, prolonged use of liquid diets, severe vomiting or diarrhea and the use of diuretics, which may cause a deficiency in blood levels of potassium.

An irregular heartbeat may be one sign of a heart attack, but only when accompanied by other symptoms. These are the major warning signs of a heart attack, according to Dr. David Copen, chief of cardiology at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut:

Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or pain in the center of your chest, generally beneath the breastbone, that lasts more than a few minutes.

The pain may spread to, or be felt only in, the shoulders, arms, elbows or jaw. Or it may be felt in the abdominal area.

Pain may grow more severe and be coupled with dizziness, fainting, sweating, shortness of breath or severe anxiety.

If you experience any of these symptoms, go immediately to the emergency room of a hospital.

An overly fast heart rate of 100 beats or more per minute is tachycardia, commonly called palpitations.

While a very rapid heartbeat can indicate a more serious heart problem, such as heart failure, palpitations are rarely the only symptom of this condition, nor even the most pronounced one.

The major warning signs are fatigue, shortness of breath _ or a blackout _ caused by inadequate blood flow, and swelling of the legs and ankles, according to Zipes.

Simple lifestyle changes often can cure harmless heartbeat irregularities.

"If there are no existing major medical problems," Laks said, "I just advise patients to cut down on caffeine, reassess their drinking habits, stop smoking and take steps to reduce stress."