Premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) are abnormal heartbeats that originate from the ventricles of the heart. They are caused by electrical “irritability” of the heart muscle of the ventricles and disrupt the heart’s normal rhythm, causing a flip-flop or skipped beat in the chest. Premature ventricular contractions are very common and are likely to appear among older individuals, individuals with high blood pressure and individuals with heart disease.
Premature ventricular contractions are also called:
- Premature ventricular complexes
- Ventricular premature beats
Treatment options for premature ventricular contractions typically involve treating underlying heart problems to help prevent further complications that might arise or in severe cases, heart failure.
While premature ventricular contractions often cause no symptoms, they can cause an strange feeling in the chest such as:
- Flip-flop beat
- Fluttering sound
- Pounding feeling
- Irregular heart beat
- Increased awareness of the heartbeat
The heart is made up of four chambers: two upper chambers (atria) and two lower chambers (ventricles). The natural rhythm of the heart is normally controlled by the sinoatrial node (SA node), an area of specialized cells located in the right atrium.
The sinoatrail node acts as a natural pacemaker to the heart and sends out electrical signals that trigger the normal heartbeat.
During premature ventricular contraction, abnormal contractions are triggered by electrical irritability of the heart muscle of the ventricles and can be caused by:
- Heart attacks
- Heart disease
- Lack of oxygen
- Electrolyte imbalances in the body
- Certain medications
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Intake of illegal drugs
As a result, the irregular beats of the heart are less effective in pumping blood throughout the body.
Certain factors that can increase or trigger the risk of premature ventricular contractions include:
- Caffeine intake
- Alcohol consumption
- Tobacco use
- Illegal drug use
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Certain heart conditions (heart disease, heart attack, heart failure)
Certain complications that can arise from frequent premature ventricular contractions or certain patterns of premature ventricular contractions may include:
- Arrhythmias: A condition that causes irregular heart rhythm (beating of the heart either too fast or too slow)
- Cardiomyopathy: An acquired or hereditary disease of the heart muscle, causing weakening of the heart
In rare cases, frequent premature contractions can lead to dangerous heart rhythms and possibly sudden cardiac death.
Most individuals with premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) and an otherwise healthy heart are in no need of treatment. In some cases however, an underlying heart disease can trigger serious rhythm disturbances.
In these cases, treatment is usually recommended by:
- Making certain lifestyle changes: Eliminating caffeine or tobacco use can help decrease the frequency and severity of symptoms associated with premature ventricular contractions.
- Taking certain medications: Beta-blockers, used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease, can repress premature contractions. Other anti-arrhythmic drugs or calcium channel blockers can be used to help regulate the heart’s function.
- Radiofrequency catheter ablation: A procedure that uses radiofrequency energy to destroy the area of heart tissue that is causing irregular contractions.