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What are Premature Atrial Contractions

Premature Atrial Contractions (PACs) are a form of heart arrhythmias. Other names for PAC are Atrial Premature Complexes or Premature Atrial Complex. During a PAC, an electrical impulse in the atrium section of the heart discharges prematurely. This emission happens earlier than the next regular beat should.

The electrical impulse causes a premature contraction of the heart also known as a premature beat. A premature beat can be common in normal, healthy teenagers and children. Many people are likely to have a premature heart beat at some time in their lives.

Causes of Premature Atrial Contractions

Ordinarily, no trigger is present. However, disease or injury in your heart can cause a premature heart beat.

Other causes of Premature Atrial Contractions could include

  • Caffeine, tobacco or alcohol – these substances affect multiple body functions, including heart rate
  • Fatigue or lack of sleep – On average, an adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep to stay healthy
  • High stress – The body generates adrenaline and cortisol in times of stress; these hormones can increase your heart rate.
  • Medications – Over-the-counter or prescription drugs may contain chemicals such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, which increase heart rate and blood flow much like adrenaline does
  • High blood pressure – Otherwise known as hypertension, high blood pressure can also be dangerous if left untreated
  • Illegal drugs – Cocaine and methamphetamine can dangerously alter your heart rate
  • Abnormal of magnesium or potassium levels – an electrolyte imbalance in the blood can cause irregular heartbeats

If you are experiencing PACs, you may be able to avoid them by changing your habits or avoiding certain substances. However, if you have an electrolyte imbalance or consistent high blood pressure with PACs, talk to a medical professional as soon as possible. Both conditions can cause damage to your heart and other body systems if left untreated.

Underlying conditions

Premature Atrial Contractions can be symptoms of more serious health conditions. Although most PACs are harmless, seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms in addition to an irregular heartbeat.

Some of the underlying conditions that can cause PACs are

  • Heart disease – This illness can include genetic defects, infection, and blocked or narrow blood vessels. Heart disease can describe many different problems with the heart.
  • Arrhythmias – Irregular or skipped heartbeats can be dangerous and may lead to heart failure or stroke.
  • Tachycardia – This is a ventricular disorder that causes rapid heart rhythm and may precede heart attacks.
  • Valve malfunction – Valves separate the upper and lower chambers of your heart. Malfunctions within these valves can create extra risks for the heart as well.
  • Hyperthyroidism – Your heart can experience a racing sensation if your body produces too much thyroid hormone.
  • Digoxin toxicity – Digoxin is a drug prescribed to treat arrhythmias or heart failure. This medicine becomes harmful if there is too much in your body. This toxicity may be life-threatening.
  • Myocardial ischemia – This condition causes reduced blood flow to your heart.

Note that PACs may develop into other clinical illnesses. For example, PACs that persist can develop into atrial fibrillation (AF). AF is a factor in heart failure and strokes. Prolonged PACs over a period of weeks are a good reason to talk to a doctor.

Premature Atrial Contraction symptoms

An early beat that occurs in the upper heart chambers is called an atrial complex or an atrial contraction. Premature beats occurring in the lower heart chambers are called ventricular complexes or ventricular contractions. The symptoms and causes of both forms of early contractions are similar. Typical symptoms of Premature Atrial Contractions are

  • A fluttering sensation in your heart
  • Feeling like your heart has skipped a beat
  • Intense or unusually strong heartbeats

You may also experience the symptoms below with PACs. However, the following issues can indicate a serious heart problem. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience PACs along with

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lightheadedness or fainting along with fluttering racing sensations near your heart
  • Heart palpitations, including beats that are faster or slower than normal or irregularly timed
  • Experiencing groups of three heartbeats more than five times per minute
  • A resting pulse rate of 100 or more beats per minute

Testing for PAC

Your current doctor will ask questions about your symptoms if you experience Premature Atrial Contractions. Offer information about your medical history and when you first noticed the warning signs.

Your physician may also recommend some tests, depending on your symptoms. These examinations could include listening to your heartbeat, checking your blood pressure, taking a chest x-ray, and doing blood tests.

Other testing procedures may include

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)– Uses electrodes to helps your doctor find heart rhythm problems
  • Echocardiogram – Provides a view of the blood flow going through the heart using ultrasound waves
  • Cardiac Chromatography (CT) scan – Uses an x-ray to create a cross-sectional view of the heart
  • Cardiac MRI – Uses radio waves and powerful magnets to make images of the heart and the surrounding tissue
  • Stress test – Electrodes monitor the heart during a period of strenuous exercise or activity
  • Holter monitor – This is a heart monitor that you wear under your clothing for 24-48 hours. This piece of equipment records your heart rhythms as you perform your regular daily activities.

Diagnosing PACs

Having pre-existing conditions may prompt your current physician to do a more thorough examination. This inspection can happen even when other symptoms do not seem to go along with the premature beat.

These health problems (along with Premature Atrial Contractions) can be symptomatic of heart disease. They include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, being overweight, or a family history that includes heart disease.

Treating Premature Atrial Contractions

PACs without an identifiable origin will usually go away on their own. If you notice changes in your heart rhythm, discuss those changes with your current physician. Often, cases of PACs do not need any care beyond a preliminary examination. Your current doctor may conclude that your symptoms are not dangerous.

You may need to visit the doctor again if

  • The signs of PACs become more frequent
  • An early heart beat accompanies other symptoms such as dizziness
  • Your current physician requests a follow-up visit to monitor your condition

The doctor will exclude serious heart conditions before deciding the best treatment for you. He or she will work with you to develop a treatment plan based on your exam results. Usually, treatment focuses on relief from symptoms. Since medications such as calcium blockers or beta blockers work by suppressing contractions, they can help but may have mixed results. Upon exclusion of serious illnesses, treatment is mostly preventative, focusing on reducing stress or avoiding substances that trigger the condition.

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