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Ann Intern Med. 2001 May 1;134(9 Pt 2):832-7.

Palpitations, arrhythmias, and awareness of cardiac activity.

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Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.


Somatic and visceral symptoms have a surprisingly weak relationship to objective measures of tissue pathology. This is exemplified by the poor correlation found between palpitations and cardiac arrhythmias. Many factors other than extent of disease influence symptomatic distress, and since symptoms are such a crucial feature of illness and of medical practice, much more investigation of these nonbiomedical influences is needed. Although experimental laboratory paradigms facilitate such investigation, there are problems involved in generalizing from laboratory findings to the reporting of the symptoms of disease in daily life. In studying the awareness of cardiac arrhythmias and of resting heartbeat, we have found that the palpitations of patients who somatize more and have more health-related anxiety and more psychiatric distress are significantly less likely to be related to demonstrable cardiac arrhythmias than are the palpitations of other patients. The accurate awareness of arrhythmias, however, is not associated with the accurate awareness of resting heartbeat. Even more surprising, a relatively large proportion of heart transplant recipients are accurately aware of their resting heartbeat. This work poses more questions than it answers. In so doing, it underscores some of the technical difficulties of conducting research in this area and shows how little is known about symptom perception, processing, and reporting.

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