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What's Really Happening When Your Heart 'Flutters'

It might feel like sudden thumps, flutters or a change in speed -- but what's really happening when your heart feels like it skips a beat? And is it dangerous to your health?

Dr. Margarita Rohr, internist at NYU Langone Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health, often sees patients who are concerned about their heart flutters, also known as heart palpitations.  "It's pretty normal, it's common," she tells #OWNSHOW in the above video. "I let them know that this is a very common and frequent occurrence, and that most of the time it's not something they need to be worried about."

Technically speaking, here's what's happening: "There's a complex, electrical pathway that sends messages to your heart to pump," Rohr explains. "If there's a disruption in that electrical path, then you may feel a flutter or a palpitation or irregular heartbeat."

As to why these flutters occur, Rohr says there are many culprits -- some of which are cause for concern, while others are likely no big deal.

Stress

 One of the common reasons Rohr says people experience heart flutters is an increase in stress or anxiety.  A bad day at work or an argument, for example, can be a trigger. 

Diet and Habits 

Certain things you ingest -- like caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine – can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. "Cutting back or eliminating those behaviors would help decrease the amount of flutter," Rohr advises.

Hormonal Changes

Sometimes, women will experience irregular heartbeats simply because they are in a certain stage of life. "That includes the perimenopause and menopausal time as well as during pregnancy," Rohr says.

Workout Regimen

 "Exercise increases your heart rate and increases your blood pressure, and this can trigger your heart to flutter," she says.

Something More Serious

While you should always consult your doctor about any symptoms you experience, Rohr explains that heart flutters are not always a cause for concern. "If it's only lasting for a few seconds and they're not having any other troublesome or worrisome symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting, along with the fluttering, it's most likely benign or something they don't need to worry about," she says.

"If the flutter is happening for a longer period of time -- so let's say it's lasting for more than seven days -- this is more concerning," Rohr continues. "Palpitations or heart flutter can be a presenting symptom of overactive thyroid. Also, anemia can have symptoms of a flutter as well."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that atrial flutters are normal. While not uncommon, atrial flutters may increase your risk of stroke and should be evaluated by a doctor. Symptoms of atrial flutter include palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, lightheadedness and fatigue. 

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