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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 17, 2018   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsScience Culture

Can your heart skip a beat?

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard, “Your eyes can’t hold stars, and you’d die if your heart really skipped,” a lyric from Kelsea Ballerini’s “I Hate Love Songs.” It got me thinking about heart anatomy and what it means to say that your heart skipped a beat.

Let’s chat about heart anatomy. In truth, it’s a muscle sack that mechanically fills and empties its four chambers to circulate blood throughout your lungs and body. Each chamber is a muscle itself, and there’s a valve between each section to ensure that the blood flows in one direction.

The heartbeat sound, think “lub dub,” is really the snapping shut of two valves. The “lub” is the atrioventricular “AV” valves — those in the middle of the heart. And the “dub” is the semilunar valves — those leaving the heart.

Finally, the electrical system. At the top of the heart is the sinoatrial, or SA, node, the pacemaker, where the electrical impulse beginscausing each top chamber to contract, pushing blood into each bottom chambers. The AV node is in the middle of the heart to slow the electrical signal as it moves downward. Lastly, the His-Purkinje network carries the signal to the bottom chambers so they can contract to send the blood out of the heart.

Basically, the electrical impulse moves methodically from the top of the heart downward with enough of a pause in the middle so that each pair of chambers can contract separately. Lather, rinse and repeat for roughly 79 years.

But let’s get back to the main question, what happens when your heart skips a beat? The technical term for this is a heart palpitation or an arrhythmia and is caused by any number of things. Think substancescaffeine, alcohol, cold remedies and other assorted drugs. Also, emotional states, like shock and stress, can cause this too. Heart abnormalities include heart rates that are too fast or too slow and also include extra and/or disorganized heartbeats.

Can your heart really skip a beat? If the SA node doesn’t send its signal on time, then sure. But when Ballerini is talking about skipping a beat, I think she’s really referring to the fluttery feeling, which is a racing heart. This is due to an adrenaline rush. While adrenaline rushes are most often associated with “fight or flight” situations, one can also be initiated on a smaller scale when you see that special someone — causing a myriad of bodily responses.

Read more about the heart’s electrical impulses with the Cleveland Clinic’s “Heart & Blood Vessels: How the Heart Beats.” And folks, please talk to a health professional if you are concerned about an irregularity in your heartbeat.