Background: Psychiatric disorder is underdiagnosed in primary care practice, often because it is somatized and the patient reports only physical symptoms. Palpitations are among the symptoms that often are somatized.
Methods: We studied prospectively 125 consecutive medical outpatients referred for ambulatory electrocardiographic monitoring to evaluate a chief complaint of palpitations. They completed an in-person research interview at the time of monitoring and a telephone follow-up interview 3 months later. The referring physicians completed questionnaires about their patients before receiving the results of the monitoring and again 3 months later.
Results: Forty-three patients had clinically significant cardiac arrhythmias. Twenty-four (29%) of the remaining 82 patients had a current psychiatric disorder, and 20 of these patients (83%) had major depression or panic disorder. These patients were significantly younger and more disabled, somatized more, and had more hypochondriacal concerns about their health than did patients who had no psychiatric disorder. Their palpitations were more likely to last longer than 15 minutes, were accompanied by more ancillary symptoms, and were described as more intense. At 3-month follow-up, about 90% of the patients in both groups continued to experience palpitations. Symptoms of somatization, hypochondriacal concerns, and impairment of intermediate activities had improved in both groups, but remained higher in patients with psychiatric disorder than in patients without psychiatric disorder. During the follow-up interval, patients with psychiatric disorder had more emergency department visits. The physicians of patients with psychiatric disorder were more likely to ascribe the palpitations to anxiety or depression, and ordered fewer laboratory tests on them, but few patients who had not already been in psychiatric treatment were referred or started on psychotropic medication.
Conclusions: Physicians are aware of a psychiatric component to the clinical presentation of palpitation, but this observation does not result in psychiatric treatment or referral in most cases.