Understanding the Link Between Heart Rhythm and Healthy Breathing
The most common symptoms and risks of atrial fibrillation involve the arteries, the heart and the brain. After all, AFib is an electrical malfunction within the heart, and it follows that the chambers, ventricles, and surrounding regions will bear most of the effects.
But the heart doesn’t work alone: all the systems in the body can feel the strain of Afib, including the respiratory system – and the symptoms aren’t always easy to spot. It’s important to learn how your heart may be affecting your lungs, both directly and through other connected disorders, so you can breathe easy while you manage your AFib.
Heart Issues Can Interfere With Lung Function
AFib is a disease of many faces, and while some people don’t even know they have it, other people are affected by uncomfortable symptoms that can be frightening. Physical sensations in the chest typically come in the form of a flutter or thumping, but it’s not uncommon to feel short of breath or general discomfort with your breathing. The problem stems from the way blood moves through the heart – or rather, the way it doesn’t move.
During an AFib episode the heart begins to beat so fast that it can’t pump blood forward into the body efficiently. In turn, blood can back-up in the pulmonary veins – the pathways responsible for bringing oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the heart. When those veins are holding this excess blood and interrupting the regular flow, fluid will tend build up in the lungs.
A fluid buildup in the lungs is generally a sign that AFib has overworked the heart so much that it has led to heart failure. Not surprisingly, when the lungs are full of fluid, they can’t receive and relay oxygen very well, explaining your shortness of breath or labored breathing. And since your heart is failing to move the oxygen-rich blood to your brain and other organs, mental and physical fatigue normally follow on the heels of breathlessness.
Sleep Apnea and Heart Conditions
Breathing difficulties can occur while you’re asleep, too. When your upper airway collapses during sleep (obstructive sleep apnea) or your central nervous system fails to properly control your breathing (central sleep apnea), you’re at risk for blood clots, chronic fatigue, and in some cases, you could stop breathing altogether. But breathing difficulties can also have a far greater effect on your heart than you might imagine.
A Reciprocal Relationship
There’s a higher risk of AFib among people with sleep apnea than in people with other cardiovascular diseases. But studies also show that uncontrolled AFib can lead to sleep apnea, and that can result in chronic fatigue, stroke, and even heart attack. Also, AFib patients with sleep apnea are less likely to enjoy permanent improvements after Afib treatments like electrical cardioversion.