Category Archives: palpitations

AfibAlert Versus AliveCor/Kardia: Which Mobile ECG Device Is Best At Accurately Identifying Atrial Fibrillation?

The skeptical cardiologist has been testing the comparative accuracy of two hand-held mobile ECG devices in his office over the last month. I’ve written extensively about my experience with the AliveCor/Kardia (ACK) device here and here. Most recently I described my experience with the Afib Alert (AA) device here.

Over several days I had my office patients utilize both devices to record their cardiac rhythm and I compared the device diagnosis to the patient’s true cardiac rhythm.

Normal/Normal

In 14 patients both devices correctly identified normal sinus rhythm. AFA does this by displaying a green check mark , ACK by displaying the actual recording on a smartphone screen along with the word Normal.

The AFA ECG can subsequently uploaded via USB connection to a PC and reviewed in PDF format. The ACK PDF can be viewed instantaneously and saved or emailed as PDF.

 

Normal by AFA/Unreadable or Unclassified by AliveCor

In 5 patients in normal rhythm (NSR) , AFA correctly identified the rhythm but ACK was either unreadable (3) or unclassified (2). In the not infrequent case of a poor ACK tracing I will spend extra time adjusting the patient’s hand position on the electrodes or stabilizing the hands. With AFA this is rarely necessary.

In this 70 year old man the AFA device recording was very good and the device immediately identified the rhythm as normal.

Chaput AFA SR

ACK recording was good quality but its algorithm could not classify the rhythm.

GC Unclassified

A 68 year old man who had had bypass surgery and aortic valve replacement had a very good quality AFA recording with correct classification as NSRChaput AFA SR

AliveCor/Kardia recordings on the same patient despite considerable and prolonged efforts to improve the recording were poor and were classified as “unreadable”

Scott AC unreadable
Alivecor tracing shows wildly varying baseline with poor definition of p wave

 

False Positives

There were 3 cases were AFA diagnosed atrial fibrillation (AF) and the rhythm was not AF. These are considered false positives and can lead to unncessary concern when the device is being used by patients at home. In 2 of these ACK was unreadable or unclassified and in one ACK also diagnosed AF.

A 90 year old woman with right bundle branch block (RBBBin NSR was classified by AFA as being in AF.

VA AFA read as AF
Slight irregularity of rhythm combined with a wider than normal QRS from right bundle branch block and poor recording of p waves likely caused AFA to call this afib
VA unclassified RBBB
AliveCor tracing calls this unclassified. The algorithm does not attempt to classify patients like this with widened QRS complexes due to bundle branch block.

The ACK algorithm is clearly more conservative than AA. The ACK manual states:

If you have been diagnosed with a condition that affects the shape of your EKG (e.g., intraventricular conduction delay, left or right bundle branch block,Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, etc.), experience a large number of premature ventricular or atrial contractions (PVC and PAC), are experiencing an arrhythmia, or took a poor quality recording it is unlikely that you will be notified that your EKG is normal.

 

One man’s rhythm confounded both AFA and AC. This gentleman has had atrial flutter in the past and records at home his rhythm daily using his own AliveCor device which he uses in conjunction with an iPad.IMG_8399.jpg

During our office visits we review the recordings he has made. He was quite bothered by the fact that he had several that were identified by Alivecor as AF but in fact were normal.

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 11.48.47 AM
These are recordings Lawrence made at home that i can pull up on my computer. He makes a daily recording which he repeats if he is diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. In the two cases above of AF a repeat measurement was read as normal. Of the two cases which were unclassified , one was normal with APCs and the other was actually atrial flutter

A recording he made on May 2nd at 845 pm was read as unclassified but with a heart rate of 149 BPM. The rhythm is actually atrial flutter with 2:1 block.

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 11.47.37 AM

Sure enough, when I recorded his rhythm with ACK although NSR (with APCS) it was read as unclassified

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 11.49.49 AM

AFA classified Lawrence’s rhythm as AF when it was in fact normal sinus with APCs.

AFA Mcgill AF

 

 

One patient a 50 year old woman who has a chronic sinus tachycardia and typically has a heart rate in the 130s, both devices failed.

We could have anticipated that AC would make her unclassified due to a HR over 100 worse than unclassified the tracing obtained on her by AC (on the right)was terrible and unreadable until the last few seconds. On the other hand the AFA tracing was rock solid throughout and clearly shows p waves and a regular tachycardia. For unclear reasons, however the AFA device diagnosed this as AF.

 

 

Accuracy in Patients In Atrial Fibrillation

In 2/4 patients with AF, both devices correctly classified the rhythm..

In one patient AFA correctly diagnosed AF whereas ACK called it unclassified.

This patient was in afib with HR over 100. AFA correctly identified it whereas ACK called in unclassified. The AC was noisy in the beginning but towards the end one can clearly diagnose AFScreen Shot 2017-05-06 at 8.39.06 AMScreen Shot 2017-05-06 at 8.11.53 AM

In one 90 year old man AFA could not make the diagnosis (yellow)

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 11.35.40 AM

ACK correctly identified the rhythm as AF

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 11.37.51 AM

One patient who I had recently cardioverted from AF was the only false positive ACK. AliveCor tracing is poor quality and was called AF whereas AFA correctly identified NSR>

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 8.42.46 AMScreen Shot 2017-05-06 at 8.42.26 AM

 

 

Overall Accuracy

The sensitivity of both devices for detecting atrial fibrillation was 75%.

The specificity of AFA was 86% and that of ACK was 88%.

ACK was unreadable or unclassified 5/26 times or 19% of the time.

 

The sensitivity and specificity I’m reporting is less than reported in other studies but I think it represents more real world experience with these types of devices.

Summary

In a head to head comparison of AFA and ACK mobile ECG devices I found

-Recordings using AfibAlert are usually superior in quality to AliveCor tracings with a minimum of need for adjustment of hand position and instruction.

-This superiority of ease of use and quality mean almost all AfibAlert tracings are interpreted whereas 19% of AliveCor tracings are either unclassified or unreadable.

-Sensitivity is similar. Both devices are highly likely to properly detect and identify atrial fibrillation when it occurs.

-AliveCor specificity is superior to AfibAlert. This means less cases that are not AF will be classified as AF by AliveCor compared to AfibAlert. This is due to a more conservative algorithm in AliveCor which rejects wide QRS complexes, frequent extra-systoles.

Both companies are actively tweaking their algorithms and software to improve real world accuracy and improve user experience but what I report reflects what a patient at home or a physician in office can reasonably expect from these devices right now.

-ACP

What Is The Cause of Low Voltage (Unreadable or Unclassified) AliveCor/Kardia Mobile ECG Recordings?

The skeptical cardiologist has had several of his readers submit stories and tracings of AliveCor Mobile ECG recordings which yield unclassified or unreadable recordings. In some cases this is due to excess noise but a lot of these tracings suffer from low voltage: the height of the tracing is very small.

John, a skepcard reader, is typical.

Recently, he noted his heart was racing and made an AliveCor recording which came back interpreted by the app as normal

EKG-3
First tracing. Note the QRS complex (the large regular spikes) are 2 boxes high. Right in front of them is a little bump, the p wave indicating normal sinus rhythm

 

Three hours later he made a second recording which has drastically lower voltage: the only deflections visible are tiny QRS complexes, the p waves have disappeared. I think this is also normal sinus rhythm but because p waves can’t be seen this came back uninterpretable and if there were any irregularity AliveCor would have called it atrial fibrillation:

EKG-4
Second tracing. Note the QRS spikes now are less than half of a box tall. There are no consistent p waves visible (unless one has a good imagination). The bumps after QRS spikes are T waves.

John has a theory on the cause of some of his low voltage recordings which I shall reveal in a subsequent post after testing it.

In the meantime, if any readers have suggestions as to causes of low voltage recordings or have noted similar issues please comment below or send recordings and observations to DRP@theskepticalcardiologist.com.

Voltagophilistically Yours,

-ACP

 

 

 

 

Treatment of Palpitations Due To Benign PVCs: Potassium, Magnesium and Lifestyle Adjustment

In a previous post, the skeptical cardiologist pontificated on the causes and evaluation of the most common cause of palpitations: premature ventricular contractions or PVCs.

The vast majority of these common extra beats turn out to be benign (meaning not causing death, heart attack or stroke), and most patients with sufficient reassurance of this benignity (often accompanied by significant caffeine reduction), do well. These people usually continue to notice the beats either randomly, or with stress, but they recognize exactly what is going on and are able to say to themselves “there go my benign PVCs again,” and aren’t worried or bothered.

A small percentage of patients that I diagnose with palpitations due to benign PVCs continue to have symptoms.

Part of my initial evaluation involves checking potassium, magnesium, kidney function, and thyroid levels.

Potassium Supplementation For PVCs

Low potassium levels (hypookalemia) have been clearly associated with an increase in ventricular ectopy. Patients who take diuretics like hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ, often used for high blood pressure) or furosemide (Lasix, often used for leg swelling or heart failure), are at high risk for hypokalemia with potassium levels less than 3.5 meQ/L.

Hypokalemia can also develop if you are vomiting, having diarrhea, or sweating excessively. There are lots of other infrequent causes including excess licorice consumption. The body regulates potassium levels closely, due to its importance in the electrical activities involved in cardiac, muscular and neurological function.

The normal range of potassium (K) is considered to be 3.5 to 5 meq/L , however, I have found that PVCs are more frequent when the potassium is less than 4.

Most of my symptomatic PVC patients with potassium less than 4 find significant improvement with potassium supplementation.  I usually give them a prescription for potassium chloride (KCl) 10-20 meq daily to accomplish raising the level to >4.

An alternative to potassium supplements is ramping up how much
screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-6-18-48-pm screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-6-19-11-pmpotassium you consume in your diet. Most patients I talk to about low K immediately assume they should eat more bananas, but lots of fresh fruit and vegetables contain as much or more K than bananas.

The charts to the right show that a medium tomato contains as much K as a medium banana with a third of the calories. Avocados are a great source of K and contain lots of healthy fat. Yogurt (and I recommend full fat yogurt, of course) is a great source as well.

If you have  kidney disease you are much more likely to develop hyperkalemia, or high K, and you want to avoid these high K foods. Potassium infusions are used as part of a “lethal injection” in executions because extreme hyperkalemia causes the heart to stop beating. (In fact, Arkansas is hurrying to execute 8 men between April 17 and 27 utilizing KCl.  According to deathpenaltyinformation.org: “The hurried schedule appears to be an attempt to use the state’s current supply of eight doses of midazolam, which will expire at the end of April. Arkansas does not currently have a supply of potassium chloride, the killing drug specified in its execution protocol, but believes it can obtain supplies of that drug prior to the scheduled execution dates”)

Lifestyle, Stress  and PVCs

It’s probably time I revealed that I have PVCs. I feel them as a sense that something has shifted inside my chest briefly, like my breath has been interrupted, like my heart has hiccoughed. If I didn’t know about PVCs and hadn’t made the diagnosis very quickly by hooking myself up to an ECG monitor in my office, I know I would have become very anxious about it.

I know exactly what causes them: stress and anxiety. And this is the case for many patients. Stress activates our sympathetic nervous system, causing the release of hormones from the adrenal gland that prepare us for “fight or flight.” These hormones stimulate the heart to beat faster and harder and often trigger PVCs.

I rarely get PVCs these days, as the major source of stress in my personal life has gone away. This is also a typical story my patient’s relate: troubling palpitations seem to melt away when they retire or change to less stressful occupations, or as they recover from depression/anxiety/grief related to death of loved ones, divorce or illness.

You can’t always control external stresses, but several factors in your lifestyle are key to managing how those stresses activate your sympathetic nervous system and trigger troubling PVCs.

Dr. Mandrola lists as Steps 5-8 (Steps 1-4 are reassurance) for PVC treatment his “four legs of the table of health”:

: good food, good exercise, good sleep and good attitude. Cutting back on caffeine and alcohol, looking critically at the dose of exercise, going to bed on time, and smiling are all great strategies for PVCs.

Of these four table legs, I consider regular aerobic exercise the most important, and modifiable factor for PVC reduction.  Aerobic exercise improves mood and increases the parasympathetic (the calming component of the autonomic nervous system) activity, while lowering the output of the sympathetic nervous system.

The three factors that I find essential to handling the demanding and stressful job of being a cardiologist: restful sleep, regular, aerobic exercise and lots of love from my eternal fiancee (who also has occasional PVCs!)

watchos3-breathe-app-animation-wrap
Apple Watch trying to get me to breathe (something I ordinarily don’t do). According to Apple (my comments in parentheses) “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance (my favorite way to think and feel) without judging them good or bad (even if I’m thinking about robbing a bank?). Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment (a really boring moment) and awakening to experience (or lack thereof). (Apologies to SH :))

Beyond sleep and exercise there is a plethora of techniques that purport to help individuals deal with stress: yoga, meditation, and progressive muscular relaxation, among them.

Apps touting methods for relaxation abound these days.  My new Apple Watch is constantly advising me to engage in a breathing exercise for a minute at a time. I don’t find any of these techniques helpful for me (I haven’t found a good way to shut my brain down without falling asleep), but they may work for you.

Magnesium, Snake Oil and PVCs

Patients will find that the internet is rife with stories of how this supplement or vitamin or herb dramatically cures PVCs.  You can be assured that a sales pitch accompanies these claims and that the snake oil being promoted has not been proven effective or safe. Because symptomatic PVCs like most benign, common and troubling conditions (lower back pain, fatigue, and nonspecific GI troubles come to mind),  are closely related to mood and wax and wain spontaneously; the placebo effect proves powerful. In such conditions, snake oil and charlatans thrive.

Magnesium is enthusiastically hyped on the internet for all manner of cardiovascular problems including PVCs. Even Dr. Mandrola, who I respect quite a lot as an EP doc who promotes lifestyle change and who is definitely not a quack, lists his step 10 for PVCs (apologetically) as follows:

  • Step 10 (a): Please don’t beat me up on this one. Some patients report benefit from magnesium supplementation. I have found it helpful in my case of atrial premature beats. Let me repeat, I am not promoting supplements. Healthy patients with benign arrhythmia might try taking magnesium, especially at night. Don’t take magnesium if you have kidney disease. And if you take too much, watch out for diarrhea.

Most of the internet’s top quacks, however, greedily market and glowingly swear by magnesium.  A Google search for magnesium cardiovascular disease yields 833,000 entries and the first page is a Who’s Who of quackery, including Dr Mercola (strong candidate for America’s greatest quack), Dr. Sinatra (see here, currently in the semifinals for America’s greatest quack cardiologist), NaturalNews and Life Extension (see here). This totally unsupported and dangerous blather from the Weston Price Foundation is often repeated and is typical:

(magnesium) Deficiency is related to atherosclerosis, hypertension, strokes and heart attacks. Deficiency symptoms include insomnia, muscle cramps, kidney stones, osteoporosis, fear, anxiety, and confusion. Low magnesium levels are found in more than 25 percent of people with diabetes. But magnesium shines brightest in cardiovascular health. It alone can fulfill the role of many common cardiac medications: magnesium inhibits blood clots (like aspirin), thins the blood (like Coumadin), blocks calcium uptake (like calcium channel-blocking durgs such as Procardia) and relaxes blood vessels (like ACE inhibitors such as Vasotec) (Pelton, 2001).

Magnesium levels are very important to monitor in hospitalized and critically ill patients, especially those receiving diuretics and medications that can effect cardiac electrical activity.

However, for individuals with normal diets and palpitations due to PVCs, there is scant evidence that it plays a significant role in cardiovascular health.

The MAGICA study looked at supplementation with both magnesium and potassium (in the active treatment group, daily oral dosing consisted of 2 mg of magnesium-dl-hydrogenaspartate (6 mmol magnesium) and 2 mg of potassium-dl-hydrogenaspartate (12 mmol potassium) daily. The dose was chosen to increase the recommended minimal daily dietary intake of magnesium (12 to 15 mmol) and potassium (20 to 30 mmol) by ∼50% in addition to usual diet ) in 307 patients with more than 720 PVCs per hour and normal baseline K and Mg levels.

The patients receiving magnesium/potassium supplements showed a decrease of 17% in frequency of PVCs but no improvement in symptoms.

A 2012 study in a Brazilian journal evaluated magnesium pidolate (MgP) in 60  patients with both PVCs and premature atrial contractions (PACs). The dose of MgP was 3.0 g/day for 30 days, equivalent to 260 mg of Mg elemental.

93% of patients receiving MgP experienced improved symptoms compared to only 13% of patients recieiving placebo. Both PVC and PAC frequency was reduced in those receiving MGP, whereas they increased by 50% in those receiving placebo.

This small study has never been reproduced, and the main results table makes little sense. It would not have been published in a reputable American cardiology journal and cannot be relied on to support magnesium for most patients with benign PVCs or PACs.

Drug or Ablation Treatment of PVCs: Usually Not Needed

A small percentage of my patients require treatment with beta-blockers which reduces the effects of the sympathetic nervous system on the heart. Very rarely, I will use anti-arrhythmic drugs. And every once in a while, very frequent PVCs resulting in cardiomyopathy require an ablation.

However, the vast majority of patients with benign PVCs, in my experience, feel drastically better with a simple non-pharmacological approach consisting of 4 factors:

  • Reassurance that the PVCS are benign
  • Caffeine (or other stimulant) reduction
  • Lifestyle adjustment with regular aerobic exercise
  • Increased potassium intake to keep K >4

Ectopically Yours

-ACP

 

 

 

Sustained Atrial Fibrillation or Not: The Vagaries and Inaccuracies of AliveCor/Kardia and Computer Interpretation of ECG Rhythm

The skeptical cardiologist has often sung the praises of the AliveCor Mobile ECG for home and office heart rhythm monitoring (see  here and here.) However, there is a significant rate of failure of the device to accurately identify atrial fibrillation.  I’ve seen numerous cases where the device read afib as  “unclassified” and normal sinus rhythm (usually with PVCs or PACs) called afib both in my office and with my patient’s home monitors.

In such  cases it is easy for me to review my patient’s  recordings and clarify the rhythm for them.

For those individuals who do not have a img_8322cardiologist available to review the recordings, AliveCor offers a service which gives an option of having either a cardiac technician or cardiologist review the tracing. The “cardiac technician assessment” costs $9 and response time is one hour. The “Clinical Analysis and Report by a U.S. Board Certified Cardiologist” costs $19 with 24 hour response time.

Obviously, I have no need for this service but I’ve had several readers provide me with their anecdotal experiences with it and it hasn’t been good.

One reader who has a familial form of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy utilizes his AliveCor device to monitor for PVCs. One day he made the following recording which AliveCor could not classify:
screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-5-37-42-am
screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-5-43-51-am screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-5-41-41-am

He then requested a technician read which was interpreted as “atrial fibrillation sustained.”

He then had requested the cardiologist reading which came back as Normal Sinus Rhythm.

Finally, he againscreen-shot-2017-02-14-at-5-44-09-am requested the technician
read and got the correct reading this time which is normal sinus rhythm with PACs

When my reader protested to Kardia customer service about this marked inconsistency: three different readings in a 24 hour period, a Kardia  customer service rep responded :

 I was able to review this with our Chief Medical Officer who advised that the recording shows Sinus Rhythm with PACs. The Compumed report seldom provides identification of PACs and PVCs as most cardiologists believe they are not significant findings. The sustained AFib finding was incorrect, so I have refunded the $5 fee you had paid.

Please let us know if you have any other questions.

As I pointed out in my post on palpitations, most PVCS are benign but some are not and patients with palpitation would like to know if they are having PVCS and/or PACs when they feel palpitations.

More importantly, the misdiagnosis of afib when the rhythm is NSR with PACs or PVCs can lead to extreme anxiety.

sr-pvcs-with-annotations
This tracing clearly (to me) shows regular and similar upward deflections (red arrow, p waves) which are a similar distance from the QRS complexes which follow (QRS complexes). The green arrows point to irregular deflections due to noise which can confuse computer algorithms (and non-cardiologists.) The distance between the QRS complexes is very regular (black arrow, RR interval). Thus, this is clearly normal sinus rhythm (NSR). Later in the recording PVCs (green arrows) are noted occurring every other beat. The distance between the QRS complexes on either side of the PVC is still the same as two RR intervals. This is clearly ventricular bigeminy.

Heres a recording
I made in my office this morning on a patient with cardiomyopathy and a defibrillator.

This is very clearly NSR with PVCs yet AliveCor diagnosed it as “possible atrial fibrillation.”

The AliveCor algorithm  is not alone in  making frequent errors in the diagnosis of atrial fibrillation.

The vast majority of ECGs performed in the US come with an interpretation provided by a computerized algorithm and medical personnel rely on this interpretation until it can be verified or corrected by an overreading cardiologist.

One study demonstrated that computerized ECG interpration (ECG-C) is correct only 54% of the time when dealing with a rhythm other than sinus rhythm

Another study found that 19% of ECG-C misinterpreted normal rhythm as atrial fibrillation. Failure of the physician ordering the ECG to correct the inaccurate interpretation resulted in change in management and initiation of inappropriate treatment, including antiarrhytmic medications and anticoagulation, in 10% of patients. Additional unnecessary diagnostic testing was performed based on the misinterpreted ECGs in 24% of patients.

When lives or peace of mind are at risk you want your ECG interpreted by a cardiologist.

I would like to take this opportunity to personally issue a challenge to IBM’s Watson.

Hey, Watson, I bet $1,000 I can Interpret cardiac rhythm from an ECG with more accuracy than you can!

Are you listening, IBM?

Do you copy, Watson?

-ACP

Are Your Palpitations Due to Benign PVCs?

If you feel your heart flip-flopping, then you are experiencing palpitations: a sensation that the heart is racing, fluttering, pounding, skipping beats or beating irregularly.

Often, this common symptom is due to an abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia.

The arrhythmias that cause palpitations range from common and benign to rare and lethal, and since most individuals cannot easily sort out whether they have a dangerous or a benign problem, they often end up getting cardiac testing or cardiology consultation.

The most common cause of palpitations, in my experience, is the premature ventricular contraction, or PVC (less commonly known as the ventricular ectopic beat or VEB).

Premature Ventricular Contractions-Electrical Tissue Gone Rogue

The PVC occurs when the ventricles of the heart (the muscular chambers responsible for pumping blood out to the body) are activated prematurely.

This video shows the normal sequence of electrical and subsequent mechanical activation of the chambers of the heart.

To get an efficient contraction, the electrical signal and contraction begins in the upper chambers, the atria, and then proceeds through special electrical fibers to activate the left and right ventricles.

Sometimes this normal sequence is disrupted because a rogue cell in one of the ventricles becomes electrically activated prior to getting orders from above. In this situation, the electrical signal spreads out from the rogue cell and the ventricles contract out of sequence or prematurely.

This results in a Premature Ventricle Contraction.

labeled-pvc
p waves represent depolarization and activation of the atria which are followed normally after120 to 200 milliseconds by the QRS complex which represents activation of the ventricles. The PVC (inside red circle) is wider and weirder and disrupts the regular interval between beats (green lines).

I recorded the above AliveCor tracing in my office on a patient who suffers palpitations due to PVCs (we’ll call her Janet).

The wider, earlier beat (circled in red) in the sequence is the PVC. The prematurity of the PVC means that the heart has not had the appropriate time to fill up properly. As a result, the PVC beat pumps very little blood and may not even be felt in the peripheral pulse. Patients with a lot of PVCs, say ocurring every other beat in what is termed a bigeminal pattern, often record an abnormally slow heart rate because only one-half of the heart’s contractions are being counted.

While recording this, every time Janet felt one of her typical “flip-flops,” we could see that she had a corresponding PVC and the cause of her symptoms was made clear.

There is a pause after the PVC because the normal pacemaker of the heart up in the right  atrium (the sinus node) is reset by electrical impulses triggered by the PVC.. The beat after the PVC is more forceful due to a more prolonged time for the ventricles to fill and  Consequently, most  patients feel this pause after the PVC rather than the PVC itself,

PVCs are common and most often benign. I have patients who have

ECG from 70 year very vigrous man who had 20 thousand PVCs in 24 hours. Every third beat is a PVC (green arrow)
ECG from 70 year old very vigorous man who had 20 thousand PVCs in 24 hours. Every third beat is a PVC (green arrow PVC, blue arrow normal QRS.)This patient feels nothing with his frequent PVCs. He has had them probably lifelong and definitely for the last 10 years without any adverse consequences.

thousands of them in a 24-hour period and feel nothing. On the other hand, some of my patients suffer disabling palpitations from very infrequent PVCs. From an electrical or physiologic standpoint, there seems to be neither rhyme nor reason to why some patients are exquisitely sensitive to premature beats.

How Do I Know If My PVCs Are Benign?

My patient, Janet, is a great example of how PVCs can present and how inappropriate or inaccurate heart tests done to evaluate PVCs can lead to anxiety and unnecessary and dangerous subsequent testing.

A year ago,  Janet began experiencing a sensation of fluttering in her chest that appeared to be random. Her general practitioner noted an irregular pulse and obtained an ECG, which showed PVCS. He ordered two cardiac tests for evaluation of the palpitations: a Holter monitor and a stress echo.

A Holter monitor consists of a device the size of a cell phone connected to two sensors or electrodes that are stuck to the skin of the chest area. The electrical activity of the heart is recorded for 24 or 48 hours, and a technician then scans the entire recording looking for arrhythmias while trying to correlate any symptoms the patient recorded with arrhythmias. The Holter allows us to quantitate the PVCs and calculate the total number of PVCs occurring either singly or strung together as couplets (two  in a row), or triplets (three in a row.)

Janet’s Holter monitor showed that over 24 hours her heart beat  around 100,000 times with around 2500 PVCs during the recording.  Unfortunately, the report did not mention symptoms, so it was not possible to tell from the Holter if the PVCs were the cause of her palpitations.

A stress echocardiogram combines ultrasound imaging of the heart before and after exercise with a standard treadmill ECG. It is a very reasonable test to order in a patient with palpitations and PVCs, as it allows us to assess for any significant problems with the heart muscle, valves or blood supply and to see if any more dangerous rhythms like ventricular tachycardia occur with exercise. If it is normal, we can state with high certainty that the PVCs are benign.

Benign, in this context, means the patient is not at increased risk of stroke, heart attack, or death due to the PVCs.

In the right hands, a stress echocardiogram is superior to a stress nuclear test for these kinds of assessments for three reasons:

-Reduced rate of false positives (test is called abnormal, but the coronary arteries have no significant blockages)

-No radiation involved (which adds to costs and cancer risk)

-The echocardiogram allows assessment of the entire anatomy of the heart, thus detecting any thickening (hypertrophy), enlargement  or weakness of the heart muscle, that would mean the PVCs are potentially dangerous.

Unfortunately, my patient’s stress echo (done at another medical center) was botched and read as showing evidence for a blockage when there was none.  An invasive and potentially life-threatening procedure, a cardiac catheterization was recommended.  Similar to the situation I’ve pointed out with the performance and interpretation of echocardiograms (see here),  there is no guarantee that your stress echo will be performed or interpreted by someone who actually knows what they are doing.  So, although the stress echo in published studies or in the hands of someone who is truly expert in interpretation, has a low yield of false positives, in clinical practice the situation is not always the same.

Given that Janet was very active without any symptoms, she balked at getting the catheterization and came to me for a second opinion. I felt the stress echo was a false positive and did not feel the catheterization was warranted. We discussed alternatives, and because Janet needed more reassurance of the normality of her heart (partially because her father had died suddenly in his sixties) and thus the benignity of her palpitations/PVCs, she underwent a coronary CT angiogram instead. This noninvasive exam (which involves IV contrast administration, and is different from a coronary calcium scan), showed that her coronary arteries were totally normal.

lad-ccta
Images from Janet’s coronary CT angiogram showing the left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery coming off the aorta. The LAD (and her other coronaries) were totally free of any plaque build-up.)

Benign PVCs-Treatment Options

Once we have demonstrated that the heart is structurally normal, reassurance is often the only treatment that is needed.  Now that the patient understands exactly what is going on with the heart and that it is common and not dangerous, they are less likely to become anxious when the PVCs come on.

PVCS can create a vicious cycle because the anxiety they provoke can cause  an increase in neurohormonal factors (catecholamines/adrenalin) that may increase heart rate , make the heart beat stronger and increase the  frequency of the PVCs.

Some patients, find their PVCs are triggered by caffeine (tea, soda, coffee, chocolate) or stress, and reducing or eliminating those triggers helps greatly. Others, like Janet, have already eliminated caffeine, and are not under significant stress.

Since I’m already over a thousand words in this post, I’ll discuss treatment options for these patients with benign PVCs who continue to have troubling symptoms after reassurance and caffeine reduction in a subsequent post.

Prematurely Yours,

-ACP