What are Premature Ventricular Beats?

Mary McMahon

Premature ventricular beats are heartbeats that originate in the ventricles, rather than the sinoatrial node of the heart, occurring shortly before a regular heartbeat would have happened. Many people experience them at some point during their lives, and in some people, they can be associated with a medical problem. Premature ventricular beats can feel like unusually strong heartbeats, skipped beats, or palpitations in the chest, although they are not always noticeable.

The heart beats too early in patients who experience premature ventricular beats.
The heart beats too early in patients who experience premature ventricular beats.

In a premature ventricular beat, an electrical impulse triggers a contraction of the ventricles before they receive a signal from the sinoatrial node. This causes the heart to beat too early. Also known as premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), they are often the result of stress or environmental factors. A patient may experience one now and then with no other ill effects, and sometimes people have them without being aware of it.

An electrocardiograph will show premature ventricular beats. They show up on the readout as a distinctive spike. The doctor can determine how frequently they occur and collect other information to determine if a patient needs treatment. Patients with heart failure, valve disorders, and coronary artery disease are more prone to premature ventricular beats, and a doctor may try to control the heart rhythm with treatment for the underlying medical condition.

They can also be a response to stress or too much caffeine, in which case a doctor may recommend that a patient make some lifestyle changes to prevent complications. Adjusting caffeine intake and using techniques to limit stress can help eliminate the problem. Age is also a factor, with older adults being more likely to experience this abnormal heart rhythm.

The risk with premature ventricular beats is that they could send the heart into an arrhythmia, where the heart does not beat normally. Some arrhythmias are very dangerous and could kill the patient. If a doctor has concerns about the patient's heart, he may recommend medications and exercise. Mechanical pacing is an option to control the heart's rhythm, as is implantation of a defibrillator to shock the heart if it enters a dangerous rhythm.

Treatment for premature ventricular beats requires balancing the desire to prevent a fatal arrhythmia with the risks of the treatments. Some medications to control heart rhythm, for example, can also cause heart rhythm problems. If a doctor thinks the risks of treatment outweigh the benefits, a more conservative wait-and-see approach may be the best option for treatment.

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