Premature atrial contractions (PAC) are irregular heartbeats caused when impulses from a different part of the heart occur before the heart’s natural pacemaker (the sinoatrial node or SA node). It is a type of cardiac arrhythmia. The human heart is made up of four chambers. Blood enters the heart through the two atria and is pumped out of the heart through the two ventricles. If the atrium is contracting too early, it causes PAC. If the early contraction comes from the ventricle it is called a premature ventricular contraction. These conditions typically present with the same symptoms; therefore, it may be difficult to tell them apart.
Individuals with PAC often feel as though they have missed or skipped a heartbeat. When the heartbeat returns after the missed beat, it usually feels stronger than normal and some individuals may feel the urge to cough. Most PACs are caused by stress or stimulants like coffee, tobacco, or alcohol. A small amount of PACs are caused by a more serious heart condition; but for the most part, PACs occur in otherwise healthy people.
The diagnosis process may include blood tests, EKGs (tests the electrical impulses of your heart), or an echocardiogram (uses sound waves to create a picture of your heart; also known as a cardiac ultrasound). There is usually no treatment necessary as most PACs are not dangerous. Some medications may be prescribed to lessen the symptoms. While most PACs are not dangerous, if you have been experiencing these symptoms, you should tell your doctor at your next appointment.