Does your heart unexpectedly start to beat rapidly, skip a beat or feel like it’s fluttering? It can be worrisome when this happens, but in most cases, these types of heart palpitations are harmless. Sometimes, though, they are a cause for concern. If the cause is atrial fibrillation, or AFib, it could lead to serious complications such as blood clots, stroke or heart failure. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms and get the right treatment.
What is atrial fibrillation (AFib)?
According to the American Heart Association, about 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib External Site, a heart-rhythm abnormality that causes a very quick, heavy or irregular heartbeat. This causes poor blood flow and can lead to a variety of complications. As the population ages, it’s estimated that 12.1 million people will be diagnosed with AFib External Site by the year 2030.
Untreated atrial fibrillation can lead to scarring of the heart, which is hard to reverse. It also doubles the risk of heart-related deaths External Site and is associated with a five-fold increased risk for stroke. Yet many people with AFib are unaware of the seriousness of their condition.
Catching it early and getting the right treatment means there’s a chance you can put atrial fibrillation into remission before it causes irreversible damage.
What causes AFib?
AFib occurs when rapid electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers to contract very fast and irregularly. When this happens, blood accumulates and isn’t pumped completely into the heart’s lower two chambers. Left untreated, this can lead to clots, stroke and heart failure.
Complicating matters is the fact that atrial fibrillation symptoms, such as heart palpitations, can be mistaken as the result of anxiety, stress, strenuous exercise, dehydration, medications or hormonal changes.
Watch for these AFib symptoms
It’s estimated that 25 percent of people with AFib have no symptoms External Site. It’s often diagnosed during an annual physical or a routine procedure, like a colonoscopy, when your heart rate is being monitored.
Heart palpitations, including rapid heartbeat, fluttering, or pounding in the chest, are only one symptom of AFib. Here are some other common symptoms:
- Extreme fatigue
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath and anxiety
- Faintness or confusion
- Chest pain External Site or pressure
Remember that chest pain or pressure is a medical emergency External Site. You may be having a heart attack and should call 911 immediately.
The older a person is, the greater the risk of developing atrial fibrillation. In fact, about 70 percent of people with AFib are between the ages of 65 and 85 External Site. Here are a few other factors that increase the risk of AFib:
- High blood pressure. If your blood pressure is not well controlled with lifestyle changes or medications, you have an increased risk of AFib.
- Heart disease. Anyone with heart disease — including congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure, heart valve problems, a history of heart attack or heart surgery — has an increased risk of atrial fibrillation.
- Other chronic health conditions. You have a higher risk of AFib if you have a chronic illness, such as thyroid disease, lung disease, sleep apnea or diabetes.
- Lifestyle factors. Obesity, genetics, alcohol and tobacco use can all lead to atrial fibrillation.
If you have heart palpitations and any of the risk factors above, you can track your symptoms using this symptom tracker Opens PDF provided by the American Heart Association.
Pinpointing and treating the problem
Generally, if you have a heart palpitation, and it lasts just a few seconds and doesn’t happen often, it’s harmless. But if the palpitations happen more frequently or worsen, you should talk to your doctor, especially if you have a history of high blood pressure or heart disease.
During your visit, the doctor will listen to your heart, and will likely recommend an electrocardiogram (EKG), or a picture of your heart’s electrical activity. Since palpitations likely won’t happen during the brief time you’re hooked up to an EKG, your doctor may have you wear a portable EKG device for 24 hours or longer, to determine how often you are having atrial fibrillation episodes and how long they last.
Depending on your age, symptoms, and the type of Afib External Site you are diagnosed with, there are a number of treatment options, including:
- Prescription drugs to help control heart rate or the rhythm of the heart.
- Electrical shock (cardioversion), an outpatient procedure that restores a normal heart rhythm.
- Minimally invasive surgery (ablation), an outpatient procedure that burns or freezes a small area of heart tissue that causes irregular heartbeats, in order to help the heart maintain a normal rhythm.
The good news is that with a combination of medical treatment and lifestyle modifications, like regular exercise and a healthy diet, most people who have AFib can continue to live normal, active lives.
What about smartwatches to monitor AFib?
Smartwatches External Site equipped with heart rhythm monitoring apps are becoming a popular tool in the treatment of atrial fibrillation. While a smart device can’t be used to diagnose AFib (only your doctor can do that), the technology can be used to help detect a bout of AFib and record heart activity.
Before you use the technology, keep in mind that these devices can produce false positives, which may lead to unnecessary anxiety and trips to the doctor. They can also give wearers a false sense of security, especially if other symptoms are overlooked. That’s why it’s best to discuss the potential benefits and dangers with your doctor first. If you don't have a personal doctor, start your search at myWellmark.com Opens New Window.
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