Heart palpitations are the sensation of rapid, fluttering, or pounding heartbeats. Common causes of heartbeats include anxiety, stress, exercise, caffeine, nicotine, fever, hormonal changes in women (due to pregnancy, menses, or menopause), and certain medications. Heart palpitations may sometimes be a sign of an underlying disorder such as hyperthyroidism or abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). Heart palpitations are often harmless, although in Chinese medicine they are usually a sign of an underlying imbalance that may lead to potential health problems down the road.
Chinese Medicine (TCM) has determined many causes of palpitations. The symptoms that accompany the palpitations often point to the underlying disease pattern. Here are some of the different patterns which may cause heart palpitations:
- Prolonged emotional upset such as timidity, fright and excessive anger may cause dysfunction of the liver and kidneys, or cause a disruption in the body’s balance of yin and yang. As a result, the energy of the heart and gallbladder can become weakened and the mind becomes scattered. In this case, the palpitations may be accompanied by restlessness, timidity, insomnia, excessive dreaming, feeble, rapid or slow irregular pulse and emotional unrest such as anxiety, panic, or phobias.
- Prolonged illness, anxiety and overstrain, or deficiency of blood due to blood loss, can also lead to heart palpitations because they can weaken the functioning of the heart. In this case, the heart palpitations may be accompanied by fatigue, pale complexion, insomnia, poor memory, and dizziness.
- Prolonged illness, overwork or overstrain, or frequent childbirth can deplete the body and lead to kidney yin deficiency. When kidney yin is deficient, this causes an excess of yang heat or fire which rises up in the body and disturbs the heart and mind, resulting in palpitations. Palpitations in this case may be accompanied by agitation, restlessness, insomnia, dizziness, lower back pain, tinnitus, and sweaty palms and feet.
- A serious or longstanding disease may consume and weaken yang qi so that the heart and blood vessels are not properly warmed and nourished. Heart palpitations due to deficiency of heart yang would be accompanied by restlessness, shortness of breath, chest distress, pale complexion, and cold limbs. In addition, deficiency of spleen and kidney yang can create fluid that will obstruct heart yang and cause heart palpitations with dizziness, a feeling of fullness in the chest, nausea, salivation, and edema.
Heart palpitations are an example of how Chinese medicine takes into account all symptoms that a person experiences in order to make a very detailed diagnosis. This in turn allows the acupuncturist to make a much more effective and tailored treatment plan. Often a symptom may have very different causes in different people. By understanding the overall pattern of disharmony in each patient, we can not only treat the main complaint of a patient, but the patient will typically also see an improvement in other symptoms and in overall health.
Heart palpitations are also a good illustration of the different approaches of Western medicine versus Chinese medicine. Whereas Western medicine may view heart palpitations as a harmless symptoms, Chinese medicine views this symptom as an important indication of what may be going on beneath the surface of what may look like otherwise good health. Symptoms are a sign of an internal imbalance, which may be the early stages of a more serious health problem down the road, if left unchecked. What makes Chinese medicine and acupuncture such an excellent complement to Western medicine is its ability to detect health problems very early on, and correct them to prevent potentially bigger problems in the future. Through acupuncture, we can bring the body back to balance, resolving symptoms like heart palpitations and enabling the body to function at optimal health.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.