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December 16, 2011 > Beware of Holiday Heart Syndrome

Beware of Holiday Heart Syndrome

The holiday season is typically a time for celebrations that feature an abundance of rich foods as well as alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately, it's also a time when some people may experience an irregular heartbeat pattern called holiday heart syndrome that is brought on by consuming too much alcohol, often in combination with large quantities of sodium-rich foods.

Holiday heart syndrome is associated primarily with drinking excessively over a short period of time, unlike alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which results from consuming large quantities of alcohol for many years. Holiday heart syndrome can affect people who rarely drink as well as people who regularly drink alcohol. It also can affect people who have no history of heart disease, including young adults and teenagers. While the condition may not be life-threatening, it can be very frightening and result in a trip to the emergency room.

"There's no question we see more people in the ER over the holidays," says Dr. David Orenberg, Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Washington Hospital. "It's also true that people do tend to drink and eat more over the holidays. The incidence of holiday heart syndrome seems to increase with binge drinking. Some studies show that up to 60 percent of people who indulge in binge drinking may experience atrial fibrillation, which is the most common type of heart rhythm disorder."

The normal heart rate for most people is between 70 to 100 beats per minute. With atrial fibrillation, the heart rate can jump as high as 600 beats per minute.

"A lot of people may not recognize the signs of heart arrhythmia," Dr. Orenberg says. "They may not even know how to take their own pulse at their wrist to determine their heart rate. But if you notice your heart is pounding, racing, 'fluttering' or skipping beats without any explainable cause such as physical exertion or sudden stress, you may be experiencing arrhythmia. Other symptoms might include dizziness, weakness and shortness of breath."

Dr. Orenberg notes that in addition to the irregular heartbeat patterns of holiday heart syndrome, there is an increase in the incidence of heart attacks during holiday times and the winter months.

"During the holidays, we tend to overeat and overdo, including physical activities that we don't normally do such as climbing up on ladders in cold weather to decorate homes and trees," he explains. "That extra physical exertion may contribute to heart attacks. It's important to recognize the symptoms of heart attacks, too, since they differ from the symptoms of arrhythmia. Squeezing chest pain, pain in the neck or pain that radiates up and down one arm are classic signs of a heart attack. Other symptoms can include shortness of breath and sweating in the absence of physical exertion.

"With a heart attack, women don't always experience the crushing pain in the chest that men do," he adds. "Women who have heart attacks often describe their chest pain as more sharp and burning, accompanied by other pain in the neck and throat. Women suffering a heart attack also may experience symptoms that seem unrelated to heart pain, such as nausea and pain in the stomach or abdomen, as well as swelling of the ankles or lower legs."

Whether you experience symptoms of holiday heart syndrome or a heart attack, it's important to seek medical attention right away, Dr. Orenberg cautions.

"In many cases, the irregular heart beat symptoms of holiday heart syndrome caused by over consumption of alcohol get better on their own, but you should definitely be evaluated by a doctor to check for atrial fibrillation since it may be caused by problems with the heart's electrical system," he explains. "Also, heart attack symptoms sometimes may be mistaken for indigestion and vice versa, but it's better to get medical attention anyway, because time may be a critical factor in heart attacks."

The key to avoiding holiday heart syndrome - and longer-term heart problems - is to practice moderation in your holiday celebrations and throughout the year, according to Dr. Orenberg. He emphasizes that people with diabetes should continue to follow their doctors' healthy eating guidelines even during the holidays, since people with diabetes are at a higher risk for heart disease than the general population.

"The holiday season is supposed to be a time to relax and enjoy celebrating with family and friends," he says. "But it's not supposed to be a holiday from taking care of yourself."

To learn more about Washington Hospital's Heart Program, visit

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