APPROACH TO PALPITATION

APPROACH TO PALPITATION

History taking in cardiology contd…

Palpitation is a common symptom in cardiac patients as well as in patients with a variety of other diseases, sometimes even without diseases. History taking represents a major part of evaluation of patients with palpitation as most patients by the time they visit a physician have no palpitation and the diagnosis has to be made retrospectively.

Before embarking on the understanding of palpitation we should know what palpitation is. As defined by EHRA (European heart rhythm association) “Palpitations are a symptom defined as awareness of the heartbeat and are described by patients as a disagreeable sensation of pulsation or movement in the chest and/or adjacent areas.”

Even though palpitation is a very common symptom it is a difficult problem to evaluate and to make a definitive diagnosis.

Below is given a list of the possible etiologies of palpitation. Take a careful look into the list  so that you understand what we are looking for while taking history of palpitation.

Etiologies of palpitation:

  1. Cardiac arrhythmias

Supraventricular/ventricular extrasystoles

Supraventricular/ventricular tachycardias

Bradyarrhythmias: severe sinus bradycardia, sinus pauses, second and

third-degree atrioventricular block

Anomalies in the functioning and/or programming of pacemakers and ICDs

  1. Structural heart diseases

Mitral valve prolapse

Severe mitral regurgitation

Severe aortic regurgitation

Congenital heart diseases with significant shunt

Cardiomegaly and/or heart failure of various aetiologies

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

Mechanical prosthetic valves

  1. Psychosomatic disorders

Anxiety, panic attacks

Depression, somatization disorders

  1. Systemic causes

Hyperthyroidism, hypoglycaemia, postmenopausal syndrome, fever,

anaemia, pregnancy, hypovolaemia, orthostatic hypotension,

postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, pheochromocytoma,

arteriovenous fistula

  1. Effects of medical and recreational drugs

Sympathicomimetic agents in pump inhalers, vasodilators,

anticholinergics, hydralazine

Recent withdrawal of b-blockers

Alcohol, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, caffeine, nicotine, cannabis,

synthetic drugs

Weight reductions drugs

Now lets go to the history taking proper. Here we will have our standard step-wise approach to history taking and analysis (as mentioned in approach to chest pain)

Step 1: describe the symptom in detail

Step2: localize the symptom to an anatomical system

Step 3: localize the palpitation to an organ/mechanism

Step 4: etiology of palpitation

As described in history taking in cardiology , always begin by noting down the premorbid functional status of the patient. Any change in functional status should be noted.

Step 1.Recording the history of palpitation:

Given here is a scheme of question to ask while taking history of palpitation

  1. Circumstances prior to the beginning of palpitations

Activity (rest, sleeping, during sport or normal exercise, change in

posture, after exercise)

Position (supine or standing)

Predisposing factors (emotional stress, exercise, squatting or

bending)

  1. Onset of palpitations

Abrupt or slowly arising

Preceded by other symptoms (chest pain, dyspnoea, vertigo, fatigue,

etc.)

  1. Episode of palpitations

Type of palpitations (regular or not, rapid or not, permanent or not)

Associated symptoms (chest pain, syncope or near syncope,

sweating, pulmonary oedema, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, etc.)

  1. End of the episode

Abrupt or slowly decreasing, end or perpetuation of accompanying

symptoms, duration, urination

Spontaneously or with vagal manoeuvres or drug administration

  1. Background

Age at the first episode, number of previous episodes, frequency

during the last year or month

Previous cardiac disease

Previous psychosomatic disorders

Previous systemic diseases

Previous thyroid dysfunction

Family history of cardiac disease, tachycardia or sudden cardiac

death

Medications at the time of palpitations

Drug abuse (alcohol and/or others)

Electrolytes imbalance

Step 2:

Once the history of palpitation has been recorded, next step is to localize whether it is cardiac or noncardiac in origin (please refer to the Etiology list for cardiac and noncardiac causes). It may be less reliable to differentiate a cardiac from noncardiac cause of palpitation based on history only. For that associated symptoms really help. Someone who has other symptoms of cardiac disease has more likelihood of having cardiac cause of palpitation.

Step 3:

Among cardiac cause of palpitation our aim is to differentiate arrhythmic from nonarrhythmic causes.

Features which suggest arrhythmic palpitations are

Structural heart disease

Primary electrical heart disease

Abnormal ECG

Family history of sudden death

Advanced age

Tachycardiac palpitations

Palpitations associated with haemodynamic impairment

Below are listed description of some common types of palpitation.

Type ofpalpitation  Subjectivedescription  Heartbeat Onset andtermination  Triggersituations  Possible associated symptoms
Extrasystolic ‘Skipping/missing a beat’, ‘sinking of the heart’ Irregular, interspersed withperiods of normal heartbeat  Sudden Rest
Tachycardiac ‘Beatingwings’ in the chest Regular or irregular, markedly accelerated Sudden Physical effort, cooling down Syncope,dyspnoea,fatigue,chestpain
Anxiety-related Anxiety, agitation Regular,slightly accelerated Gradual Stress,Anxiety attacks

 

Tingling in the hands and face, lump in the throat,atypical chest pain,sighing dyspnoea 
Pulsation Heart pounding Regular,normal frequency Gradual Physicaleffort Asthenia

 

Some features also help to differentiate the different types of arrhythmic palpitations:

Type of arrhythmia Heartbeat Trigger situation Associated symptoms Vagal manoeuvres
AVRT, AVNRT Sudden onset regular with periods of elevated heart rate Physical effort, changes in posture Polyuria, frog sign Sudden interruption
Atrial fibrillation Irregular with variable heart rate Physical effort, cooling down,post meal, alcohol intake Polyuria Transitory reduction in heart rate
Atrial tachycardia and atrial flutter Regular (irregular if A-V conduction is variable) with elevated heart rate Transitory reduction in heart rate
Ventricular tachycardia Regular with elevated heart rate Physical effort Signs/symptoms of hemodynamic impairment No effect

 

These tables will help to delineate the cardiac cause of palpitation.

 

Step 4:

This the final step where all the above discussion culminates in a list of differential diagnosis. The differential diagnosis will look something like this

  1. Arrhythmic palpitation
  2. Structural heart disease e.g.
    1. Valvular regurgitation
    2. Congenital or acquired shunt lesions
  3. Heart failure    etc..

 

In the exams it is a bit difficult to make  differential diagnoses based on palpitation only. There evaluate other cardiac symptoms very carefully. Once all the cardiac symptoms have been analysed then forming differential diagnoses is a bit easy. Yes one more thing read the natural history of cardiac diseases. I will post articles on natural history of cardiac diseases once this discussion on history taking is over.

This outlines the approach to palpitation. I hope it fulfils your purpose. All these articles are intended for medical students and exam goings. For professional there are a few references listed below for further reading.

Further readings:

  1. Weber BE, Kapoor WH. Evaluations and outcomes of patients with palpitations.

Am J Med 1996;100:138–48.

  1. Thavendiranathan P, Bagai A, Khoo C, Dorian P, Choudhry NK. Does this patient

with palpitations have a cardiac arrhythmia? JAMA 2009;302:2135–43.

  1. Hoefman E, Boer KR, van Weert HCPM, Reitsma JN, Koster RW, Bindels PJE.

Predictive value of history taking and physical examination in diagnosing arrhythmias

in general practice. Fam Pract 2007;24:636–41.

  1. Managing patients with palpitation. Europace (2011) 13, 920–934

2 thoughts on “APPROACH TO PALPITATION

    1. Thanks
      Frog Sign
      Prominent neck pulsations due to ‘cannon A’ waves, which occur in AV dissociation, where the atria contract against closed tricuspid or mitral valves, resulting in a intermittent buildup of pressure in jugular veins

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