AFib Symptoms: Understanding the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation
With contributions from Jeffrey R.
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a relatively common disorder. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology estimated that 2.7-6.1 million people in the United States have AFib, and that number is expected to grow with the aging population.
Of that estimation, approximately two percent of people who are younger than 65 have AFib, while nine percent of people who are older than 65 years old have AFib. And the risk of AFib increases with age.
One of the most interesting facts about AFib is that the people who are living with the condition do not know they have it because they are not experiencing any noticeable symptoms of the condition.
If you're not – or if you are – experiencing the symptoms how can you reach a diagnosis of AFib? The first step to achieving a diagnosis is by learning the early signs and symptoms of AFib. By educating yourself about the symptoms, you and your healthcare team can work together to reach a diagnosis and develop a treatment to prevent progression of the condition.
What Causes AFib?
While AFib is also a bit mysterious: there are many AFib cases which are traced to an underlying disease or another heart condition, and sometimes there’s no discernable source as to how and why AFib developed.
While each case of diagnosing AFib is different, there are some conditions which are known to influence the development of AFib. These common causes of AFib may include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart diseases or conditions
- Sleep apnea
- Lung diseases
- Overactive thyroid
- Genetics and/or age
Keep in mind these are just a few causes of AFib, and not a definite list.
Although it always involves an electrical misfiring in the heart’s atria, AFib can affect different people in many different ways.
What starts as a little heart flutter once in a while could turn into a regular occurrence in a matter of weeks, months or even years.
The Types of AFib
As atrial fibrillation worsens, you might notice more frequent AFib episodes, more symptoms, or more intense sensations in the chest or body. In some cases, intermittent AFib (known as paroxysmal AFib) will become persistent AFib, and perhaps even permanent AFib.
Here's a quick lesson about the different types of AFib:
- Intermittent/Occasional/Paroxysmal AFib. In this type of AFib, symptoms typically come and go, and may last for a few minutes to a few hours, and then stops on its own. Paroxysmal AFib can last up to 7 days.
- Persistent AFib. With persistent AFib, the heart rhythm doesn't go back to normal on its own. Treatment such as an electrical shock or medications will help the heart return to a regular rhythm. This type of AFib can last more than 7 days.
- Long-standing persistent AFib. This type of AFib is continuous and lasts longer than 12 months.
- Permanent AFib. Unfortunately, the abnormal heart rhythm from permanent AFib can't be restored. A physician will prescribe you treatment to help prevent your condition from worsening.
Your physician can determine which type of AFib you have and provide proper treatment and guidance to help you manage the symptoms and the condition.
A good rule of thumb is to get any chest or heart discomfort checked out right away by a healthcare professional.
What Are Some Early AFib Symptoms to Watch for?
If AFib is indeed the source of your chest or heart discomfort symptoms, getting treatment started early can help prevent your AFib symptoms and condition from advancing or worsening, and that will immediately decrease your risk of stroke or heart failure in the future.
For the most part, atrial fibrillation can go undetected for a long time, but as it advances, many people eventually notice some abnormal sensations.
For example, pain isn’t the only worrisome chest symptom to watch out for – there are less prominent changes can also point to AFib. These other changes in the heart may include sensations of fluttering, palpitations, a racing heartbeat, unexplained and unusual fatigue levels, and a feeling of tightness in the chest.
Remember, if you experience any of these symptoms – seek out a healthcare professional as soon as possible to assess your symptoms for a proper diagnosis.
A Momentary Fluttering in the Chest
A little painless flutter in the chest or the feeling like your heart has just skipped a beat, usually is nothing to worry about and are often referred to as heart palpitations.
Heart palpitations are common, and are often very benign; a fright, moment of excitement, or bout of exercise could interrupt your heart's natural rhythm.
However, when an unusual flutter or a pounding beat happens regularly – and without any discernable trigger – AFib may be to blame.
Forceful Heart Palpitations
While a flutter feels like a skipped beat, sometimes heart palpitations feel like hard and forceful heartbeats that are much stronger than usual. These palpitations are accompanied by a fast and irregular rhythm and are a classic sign of AFib.
People who have experienced a heart palpitation often describe it as feeling as though their heart is “jumping around inside their chest.”
A Racing or Sluggish Heartbeat
When your heart is in fibrillation, too many electrical signals are sent into your atria, and there they compete to get through the AV node (the gateway to your heart’s lower ventricles). This excess of electrical signals cause your atria to flutter, and can also speed up your heart rate.
You may notice your pulse is faster than usual or alternating between fast and slow.
Unusual Levels of Fatigue
When your heart’s atria aren’t moving efficiently, your tissues aren’t receiving as much oxygenated blood as they need. In turn, you may begin to feel tired, weak, and lethargic more than usual.
A racing heartbeat that goes on for too long is also physically exhausting, especially when it comes with an adrenaline response (which is common when anxiety is involved).
A Tight Sensation in the Chest
A tightness or constriction in the chest can signal something very serious, but it could also stem from a relatively harmless source.
If heartburn is to blame, an over-the-counter antacid may be enough to relieve the discomfort, but severe chest pressure that makes it difficult to breathe could be a signal of heart failure and demands swift medical attention.
AFib can sometimes cause a feeling of tightness in the chest as well, and though it’s not as much of an emergency as a heart attack, it certainly calls for a more in-depth investigation.
Other Discomforts Related to AFib Symptoms
As AFib progresses, symptoms will tend to hit at shorter intervals and may lead to other discomforts.
For instance, as your heart continues to lose efficiency, you may feel lightheaded or short of breath. Perhaps activities that were once easy for you are now quite strenuous, and you rarely feel well-rested, even after a full night’s sleep.
Next Page: Other warning signs and symptoms of AFib, is it AFib or something else? And more.