When I was a kid, I'd sometimes go fishing at neighbor's summer house on a lake. We'd fill a bucket up with water and any fish I'd caught would go in there, briefly, before getting thrown back. When fish would first get dropped into the bucket, they would FREAK OUT — spinning, flipping, swishing, surprised to suddenly be in a really small space after having a whole lake to enjoy.
In the past month or so, at times my heart acted like "a fish in a bucket" — spinning, flipping, swishing. I might not have worried if it happened when I was stressing out about a deadline or pushing hard on the stair master, but it was happening at quiet times, when I'd be relaxed, falling asleep, or reading a book.
Heart problems are a theme in my family. Both my mother and my brother have mitral valve prolapse — a fancy way of saying that the valve doesn't close properly, which can cause an irregular heartbeat and dizziness. Totally not life-threatening. When I was younger, I was also diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse, along with tricuspid valve prolapse and regurgitation in both valves — but when I was in my early 20s, I was told I had outgrown the conditions. All tests back then showed my ticker was fine.
So this sudden resurgence of strange behavior was a bit unnerving. Needless to say, I got myself to a cardiologist pretty quickly.
The doctor quickly requested three tests:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG): This is a fairly basic test that records your heartbeat and any irregularities. The test is super fast, less than 10 minutes total — it takes longer to get all the electrodes strapped on than to record the session.
- Holter Monitor: This is basically an ECG that you get strapped into and wear for 24 hours, and it records every little beat and blip. The doctor's advice was to do whatever I could while wearing it, in an attempt to bring on the flipping and swishing. I drank two cups of coffee, did cardio, lifted weights, had a glass of wine, thought about my own mortality, but nada, nothing: I wasn't able to bring on the symptoms. I also made a lot of jokes about looking like a bank robber (lots of wires attached to my chest).
- Echocardiogram: If you're a woman, and you've ever had an ultrasound when pregnant (or if you're a dude and you've gone with your wife, or perhaps you've seen one on TV), and ECHO is simply an ultrasound of your heart. It's helpful because it allows the doctors to look at your valves — whether they're closing properly — and to look at your blood flow — to see whether there's any regurgitation. It takes about a half hour, and just like with pregnant bellies, the gel they use to take the photos is COLD. Be prepared.
I went through the barrage of tests, and waited, and waited. Finally, I got a phone call from the office and ... the holter monitor had stopped recording after 21 hours, so I needed to wear it for another day. I got hooked up again, went through my day — I definitely tried less hard to make myself have symptoms the second time around, which is a shame — and turned it back in the next day.
And then I waited and waited (it takes anywhere from two days to a week for the cardiologist to go through your 24 hours of data, so be patient), and finally got the call: The holter test was completely normal. The ECG and ECHO were completely normal. I really did outgrow the heart issues I had when I was younger.
My doctor's advice?
- Cut back on caffeine. I figured that would be the advice regardless so I've already started paring back to one cup a day (vs. my usual 2-3).
- Avoid extra sugars. I can have a bit of a sweet tooth...
- Stay hydrated. I drink a ton of water most of the time so this one should be easy.
- Watch my electrolytes. The four key electrolytes for your heart are potassium, calcium, sodium, and magnesium — imbalance in any can cause palpitations. I already know I can sometimes be lacking in potassium, so I'm thinking about adding a magnesium supplement to my routine as well.
- Relax. This one should be interesting...
It took more than a month to get this diagnosis, and more than anything I'm thrilled to know that I'm fine. (Now I just have to brace myself for the bill.)
Have you ever had a heart scare? Do you live with a heart condition? I'd love to hear more about it if so.