Purpose: To determine: (1) the etiologies of palpitations, (2) the usefulness of diagnostic tests in determining the etiologies of palpitations, and (3) the outcomes of patients with palpitations.
Patients and methods: One hundred and ninety consecutive patients presenting with a complaint of palpitations at a university medical center were enrolled in this prospective cohort study. Patients underwent a structured clinical interview and psychiatric screening. The charts were abstracted for results of the physical exam and tests ordered by the primary physician. Assignment of an etiology of palpitations was based on strict adherence to predetermined criteria and achieved by consensus of the two physician investigators. One-year follow-up was obtained in 96% of the patients.
Results: An etiology of palpitations was determined in 84% of the patients. The etiology of palpitations was cardiac in 43%, psychiatric in 31%, miscellaneous in 10%, and unknown in 16%. Forty percent of the etiologies could be determined with the history and physical examination, an electrocardiogram, and/or laboratory data. The 1-year mortality rate was 1.6% (95% confidence interval [CI] 0% to 3.4%) and the 1-year stroke rate was 1.1% (95% CI 0% to 2.6%). Within the first year, 75% of the patients experienced recurrent palpitations. At 1-year follow-up, 89% reported that their health was the same or improved compared to that at enrollment, 19% reported that their work performance was impaired, 12% reported that workdays were missed, and 33% reported accomplishing less than usual work at home.
Conclusions: The etiology of palpitations can often be diagnosed with a simple initial evaluation. Psychiatric illness accounts for the etiology in nearly one third of all patients. The short-term prognosis of patients with palpitations is excellent with low rates of death and stroke at 1 year, but there is a high rate of recurrence of symptoms and a moderate impact on productivity.