What Does AFib Feel Like?
Travis and Jeffrey share their stories about what AFib feels like.
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a condition that often produces a variety of unusual feelings and odd sensations. Many people with AFib experience symptoms that can range from mild to debilitating, depending on the form of AFib they have.
AFib symptoms happen because of the incomplete contraction of the atria resulting from a disruption in the heart’s normal electrical conduction. AF can then cause the ventricles to fire erratically at rates between 100 to 200 beats per minute.
If you have AFib, chances are you have experienced some, if not all, of its associated warning signs.
What Happens When the Heart is in AFib
When your heart is its normal rhythm, it beats twice synchronously: once each when the atria and the ventricles contract. If you use a stethoscope to listen to these contractions, you will hear a “lub-dub” sound.
When your heart is in AFib, the atrial and ventricular chambers are out of sync and racing, so there is no “lub-dub” sound. The heart muscle also quivers because it is unable to pump forcefully enough to allow for complete contractions.
What Do the Symptoms Feel Like?
With any disease, the first question that comes to mind is what are the symptoms? Most people are symptomatic, so when they go into AFib, they know something isn't right.
The Symptoms of AFib
For some people, atrial fibrillation can start with a skipped beat coupled with a “thump”-like feeling, followed by a racing heart rate. The most regularly reported symptoms people experience with AFib are:
- Chest discomfort
- Feeling faint
- Fatigue - feeling drained physically after an occurrence
- Inability to exercise
- Palpitations that feel like a fluttering, pounding, or racing heartbeat
- Shortness of breath due to inadequate atrial and ventricular chamber filling, resulting in reduced oxygen delivery to the rest of the body
Symptoms of AFib differ between individuals, and depend on factors such as age, ethnicity, the primary cause of the AFib, and the number of cardiac risk factors present:
- Cardiologists conducted a research study at the University of Foggia in Italy in 2012 that found elderly individuals over the age of 70 may have atrial fibrillation without feeling symptoms.
- According to a study from 2016 in the American Heart Journal, Black patients tend to experience more symptoms than White or Hispanic patients because of a higher number of cardiac risk factors.
Mild to incapacitating symptoms can occur and are dependent on the type of AFib you have:
- Paroxysmal AFib happens randomly with definite warning signs, can last up to seven days, and can resolve on its own. Paroxysmal AFib can cause anxiousness, shortness of breath, palpitations, a quick onset of weakness and fatigue, and can wake a person from sleep. People with this kind of AFib often feel physically exhausted after an occurrence.
- Persistent AFib is present for more than seven days, with symptoms identical to paroxysmal but less severe. Return to a normal rhythm requires medical treatment.
- Permanent AFib last several months or years and is not correctable with any medical treatment. Symptoms with this form are less intense than with persistent AFib, and may no longer be noticeable after a certain amount of time.
Some individuals experience no symptoms and are unaware that they have AFib until they undergo a physical examination.
Travis' AFib Diagnosis
I was diagnosed with AFib when I was just 32 years old. The other day a 22-year-old woman contacted me on my blog to say she was just diagnosed with it.
Atrial fibrillation doesn't discriminate. While it's true you're more likely to get it in your later years, you're not entirely immune to it if you're young.
This is especially true if AFib runs in your family. My dad was diagnosed with it at a relatively early age (50) and surprise surprise, I was diagnosed with it at an ever earlier age!
What Does AFib Feel Like? – Travis
When I had my first episode, I thought I was having a heart attack. Like the flip of a switch, my heart suddenly took off. My heart was racing and pounding out of my chest as if I had just completed a marathon.
This pounding and racing feeling is one of the most common symptoms of AFib. Another way it's often described is a large fish flopping in your chest.
Like a fish does if you pull it out of the water and put it on the ground, it flips and flops irregularly — and often times violently as it struggles being out of water. That's exactly what your heart feels like it's doing when you're in AFib — violent, irregular flip-flopping.
When people ask me how will they know if they are in AFib, I always respond with this simple reply: "Trust me. You'll know!"
The first thing people often assume is that they are having a heart attack. It's that dramatic of an experience for most people.
When I go into AFib, for example, not only do I know it immediately, but it completely renders me useless. I can't do anything but sit in a chair or lie down until I convert to normal sinus rhythm (NSR).
Not everyone has such a dramatic experience when they go into AFib. In fact, a lot of people can function normally despite it.
Sure they'll have symptoms, but they won't be so severe that it knocks them off their feet. These symptoms can include any of the following:
- Unusual fatigue (they get winded doing the simplest of things)
- A "butterfly" sensation in their chest
- Palpitations (faint or those heart-pounding palpitations)