What are Ectopic heartbeats?

Have you ever felt like your heart has skipped a beat? This may have been an ectopic heartbeat.

Ectopic heartbeats are common and can happen to people of any age whether they have heart disease or not. (1)

But what exactly are ectopic heartbeats? What causes them? And are they dangerous?


What are Ectopic heartbeats?

Ectopic heartbeats are irregular heartbeats which cause variations in the normally regular pulse.

The condition refers to both extra heartbeats and skipped heartbeats. (2)

Symptoms of Ectopic heartbeats

Ectopic heartbeats involve the conscious awareness of your own heartbeat. These are also known as palpitations. (3)

There may be a fluttering or pounding feeling in your chest, which may also spread to your throat or neck. (4)

You may feel like your heart has momentarily stopped altogether, or that it has skipped a beat.

Another characteristic symptom of ectopic heartbeats is an occasional feeling of strong forceful beats. (3)

Ectopic beats are commonly felt when you are lying in bed. This is partly because you are often very conscious of your heartbeat in this situation. (5)

Who do Ectopic heartbeats affect?

The condition can happen to people of any age, whether they have an underlying heart condition or not. (1)

It is thought that most people have at least one ectopic beat every day; however, most go unnoticed. (10)

Ectopic heartbeats are also found in babies. If the midwife spots an Ectopic heartbeat of the child during pregnancy, it may be advisable for the mother to cut down on beverages that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee and cola. (6)

What causes Ectopic heartbeats?

Normally, the heart is sent a signal to beat from the sino atrial node in the top right hand chamber of the heart known as the right atria. (7)

During Ectopic heartbeats, the signal is sent from somewhere else in the heart. This signal can come from either the atria or the ventricles (the upper or lower chambers of the heart) causing the heart to beat earlier than normal within the normal heart cycle. (7, 8)

As a result of the need to have time to send the signal in advance of the normal signal, Ectopic heartbeats tend to occur when the body is relaxing. This is because the heart is beating slower. (7)

Triggers of Ectopic heartbeats

Some people find the following factors trigger Ectopic heartbeats:-

  • Alcohol intake
  • Caffeine intake
  • Stress
  • Tiredness
  • Cold medicines that contain decongestants (9)
  • Anxiety
  • Smoking
  • Pregnancy
  • Undergoing the menopause
  • Taking recreational drugs (1)

How are Ectopic heartbeats diagnosed?

In order to diagnose your Ectopic heartbeats a doctor will take your pulse and check for irregularities. They will also ask you to describe your symptoms. (1)

You may be required to have an electrocardiogram (ECG) which is a heart trace, this will confirm the diagnosis.

Due to the infrequent nature of Ectopic heartbeats, you may be required to wear a portable heart monitor for a period of 24 hours. (9)

Are Ectopic heartbeats dangerous?

In short, Ectopic heartbeats are not dangerous if you are generally in good health. (1, 10)

If Ectopic heartbeats are associated with other symptoms of feeling unwell, however, they should be looked into. (5)

Furthermore, if you are aware that you have coronary heart disease, you should also report such changes in your heart rhythm to your doctor. (1)

Treating Ectopic heartbeats

In general, treatment is not required for Ectopic heartbeats unless they are causing unpleasant symptoms. (9) This may be if the Ectopic heartbeats occur very frequently or are very severe. (3)

One way Ectopic heartbeats can be reduced is by working out what is triggering them and trying to reduce the cause. (1)

In inactive people, exercise may help to reduce Ectopic heartbeats. (2)

There are some medical therapies. If the patient is otherwise healthy, however, a doctor may not wish to prescribe these therapies due to the potential risks involved.

These therapies include beta-blockers, such as metoprol or Bisoprolol, or calcium channel blockers, such as verapamil or Diltiazem. (7, 9)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jun 28, 2019

April Cashin-Garbutt

Written by

April Cashin-Garbutt

April graduated with a first-class honours degree in Natural Sciences from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. During her time as Editor-in-Chief, News-Medical (2012-2017), she kickstarted the content production process and helped to grow the website readership to over 60 million visitors per year. Through interviewing global thought leaders in medicine and life sciences, including Nobel laureates, April developed a passion for neuroscience and now works at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, located within UCL.


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  1. June Delmont June Delmont United Kingdom says:

    Thank you this information has been a great help to me

  2. robin ny robin ny United States says:

    Reading this is quite a reassurance. I have been experiencing one or two strong heartbeats per day off and on for past few months with no other symptoms. I am not sure if I've had them forever/before and it is only recently that I've become aware or if they are new. I am 33 years old female, thin, very active.  I am very active (I walk quite a bit and play competitive Badminton). I do not smoke or drink, never have. I do have mild allergy-induced asthma which is well under control. I take Singulair/Montelukast (10 mg) and Zyrtec (5 mg) daily for allergies and asthma. For many years, I used to have a cup of tea in the morning and 1 (max 2) cups of coffee during the day/evening which I have quit for the past 2 or so weeks. I now only have one cup of tea in the morning.

    Wondering if you might be able to shed more light on this?

    • John Adams John Adams United States says:

      I feel more of them while sitting still watching tv or laying down. I always think it's because i'm at a certain angle. I try everything to rid myself of them. they started in 1987, but who knows I might have had them all my life but only then did I start noticing them. I hate having to white knuckle my way through an episode of them. We are not alone, but I feel so alone when I get them, like no one else understands...

      • Nick Seaung Nick Seaung United States says:

        I have the exact same thing, while watching TV on the recliner ..  It comes and goes ..  sometimes with a sharp pain..  Doc Checked out fine , But i do have a small murmur from childhood.. not sure if it still there.  remember we are not alone..  I think for every symptom , there's someone else that can share the same experience.. thanks..

  3. Sloopy .Dog Sloopy .Dog United Kingdom says:

    I was diagnosed with heart disease about 15 years ago.  I have had two heart attacks and 4 stents fitted.  I suffered dreadful angina for many years before the stents were fitted. I now only get angina on exertion.  About two years ago I started getting a severe throbbing in my head and under my chin.  The throbbing is there all the time but much worse at night and is very frightening.  My doctor prescribed pain killers, which didn't help and then after 18mths I was sent for an MRI scan of my head.  This showed slight blockages in the arteries leading to the brain, it was considered these were age related, i'm 69 years old.  I had a 24hr ECG done which showed an ectopic heart beat mostly at nights.  Nothing is being done to help me so I am forced to endure the throbbing in my head and neck.  When you get older doctors don't seem to be very interested.  I wish I could find out what exactly is causing it.

  4. Jerry Hohnbaum Jerry Hohnbaum United States says:

    My heart stops beating for several seconds with no warning.  Has this happened with you?  If so, how did you handle it.

  5. Donald MacCuish Donald MacCuish United Kingdom says:

    The most horrible bit for me about these is that, although mine occur individually they are completely random and feel like a mini-shock. This sensation, and the whole business of waiting for the 'next one' keeps me on edge most of the time. If only there was some way of becoming de-sensitised to their onset, I would feel so much more relaxed, and grateful. I have had them on and off since 1973 (!!!) although it's only recently that they have been manifesting in this insidious way.

  6. Khaliquz Zaman Khaliquz Zaman United Kingdom says:

    Lets just say this Us humans are weak creatures !!!!!! all other species are so much better and have way less health problems, I have had problems since day 1 tried my best to solve it but nothing we're just useless put it that way at the end of the day lol

  7. Paul James Kirsopp Paul James Kirsopp United Kingdom says:

    I was diagnosed with paroxymial A.F, with occasional ectopic beats, now had ectopic beats for last three days every half hour..i also find my stomach swells as well they say its ibs but only happens when get ectopic beats...anyone else experience this, I keep myself moderately fit and am generally healthy.

  8. Bryan Trevitazzo Bryan Trevitazzo Peru says:

    For sure, I guess that it is a useful information. For those people that have this problem, check it, I think it will help you to clear your thoughts.

  9. Tania Lake Tania Lake United Kingdom says:

    I’ve just been diagnosed with ectopic heartbeats. Apparently I had over 200 when I had my 24 hr EKG. My doctor increased my HRT patch, so we’re seeing how things go. I’m also a nurse and a coffee holic, so that’ll need to go too. Doc was reassuring and told me that it happens to a lot of people at some point. So I’ve to go back in four weeks. Fingers crossed. I had most of them when I was lying down watching tv.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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