How AFib Makes You Feel: Common Symptoms

Lub dub. Lub dub. When we lay our head down on the chest of a loved one, we are brought back to that familiar thump that we have recognized since infancy. The human heartbeat is a magically soothing sound. 

But what happens when the heart doesn’t beat in that rhythmic, regular pattern? For individuals with AFib, a steady heartbeat may be a distant memory. You might be wondering: How would I even know if I had atrial fibrillation? What does AFib feel like? Today we will uncover the most common symptoms of AFib.

What is atrial fibrillation?

The heart is like a home. It has four rooms, or chambers. The top two chambers are called the atria, and the bottom two chambers are the ventricles. Just like a home, the heart is wired with electricity. The electrical signal begins at the top of the heart in the sinus (SA) node. In a healthy heart, the electric current travels from top to bottom, causing it to contract and pump blood. 

With AFib, the SA node no longer directs the electrical current. Instead, the heart receives many different impulses outside the sinus node, causing the atria to quiver, or fibrillate. The fast and chaotic rhythm of the atria makes it difficult to pump blood effectively to the ventricles. What’s more, the atria and ventricles no longer work in coordination.

AFib is the most common cardiac arrhythmia worldwide, and there are no signs that it’s slowing down soon. It’s estimated that up to 12 million people will suffer from AFib by the year 2050. AFib is an epidemic with grave consequences for public health. 

What does AFib feel like?

The symptoms of atrial fibrillation can vary from person to person. For many, the first sign of AFib is a missed heartbeat, followed by a feeling that the heart is beating differently. It might feel like a flutter or a quiver in the chest. Others describe AFib as a feeling that the heart is flipping around and pounding. Most people express a feeling that the heart is beating faster than usual. Other ways people describe AFib are:

  • “My heart feels like it has butterflies in it.”
  • “My heart feels like I’m exercising, but I’m not.”
  • “My heart feels like it’s flopping like a fish.”
  • “I am suddenly exhausted.” 
  • “I think that I’m having a heart attack.”
  • “It feels like my heart is pounding.”
  • “It feels like there is a ferret or bird in my chest.”
  • “I just feel like my heart is not right.” 

What are other symptoms of AFib?

Aside from the physical symptoms of an irregular heartbeat, AFib can cause multiple other problems. The most common symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. In addition, some individuals feel confused or have a feeling of fogginess. Others feel sweaty, and some even experience chest tightness or pain.

The emotional toll of AFib 

While the physical signs of AFib are hard to bear, the emotional symptoms are sometimes even more distressing. Since our hearts are our lifelines, any perceived problems can cause confusion, anxiety, panic, and a sense of doom. Often, stress exacerbates the symptoms of AFib, as the heart rate elevates more in response to fear. 

For individuals living with AFib, anxiety can become a chronic condition. Individuals can become hyper-sensitive to any minor changes in their bodies as they subconsciously await the next AFib attack. For some, depression can also arise, as they wonder if they will ever get better or if their life as they knew it is over. 

Can symptoms of AFib come and go? 

Depending on the type of atrial fibrillation you have, symptoms may be short-lived or permanent. The duration of symptoms classifies atrial fibrillation: 

  • Paroxysmal AFib: Symptoms of paroxysmal AFib come and go. An episode can last from a few seconds to seven days before returning to normal sinus rhythm. This type of AFib usually resolves on its own with no intervention. 
  • Persistent AFib: Individuals with persistent AFib have symptoms that last longer than seven days and typically require treatments to stop the AFib. 
  • Permanent AFib: AFib may be deemed permanent if it lasts longer than a year and when the decision is made to no longer attempt to restore normal rhythm. 

Is it possible that I have AFib with no symptoms?

Some individuals are unaware that they have atrial fibrillation until it is found at a doctor’s visit or on a routine EKG. In hindsight, some people admit that they noticed increasing fatigue or reduced ability to exercise. However, they report that they attributed it to stress or the natural aging process. 

It’s unclear why some people experience symptoms with AFib while others do not. Some individuals with atrial fibrillation may not have a significantly elevated heart rate, so the symptoms go unnoticed. Asymptomatic AFib is relatively common and can lead to devastating outcomes, often hiding for years and suddenly causing a stroke.

How would I know if I had AFib?

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, you should contact your doctor for a further cardiac evaluation. Doctors use an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to diagnose AFib. However, since AFib can come and go, it does not always show up on a routine EKG. Some individuals must wear a Holter monitor or other wearable heart-monitor device for an extended length of time to capture the arrhythmia. 

Can I check for AFib at home? 

While there is no definitive way to check for atrial fibrillation at home, you may be able to detect it by checking your pulse. The best way to take a pulse is as follows: 

  • Find a comfortable place to sit and take a resting pulse.
  • Place your index and middle fingers on the inside of your wrist (at the base of the thumb) on the opposite hand. 
  • Press down lightly and feel for a pulse 
  • Count the beats for 30 seconds and double that number to get the beats per minute.

Your pulse should feel steady and regular, as though it’s beating in rhythm with a drum. If your rhythm seems irregular or if it’s faster than 100 beats per minute, you could have atrial fibrillation. 

If you are having difficulty feeling your pulse, you can try checking your carotid pulse, which is on the side of your neck just under your jawline. If you still have difficulty feeling your pulse, portable monitors are available for home use. 

Will AFib ever go away?

AFib is considered a chronic condition, but there are many instances where individuals can reverse AFib with lifestyle changes. AFib rarely happens for no reason. Identifying the root cause of your atrial fibrillation is essential. AFib can be caused by high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, sleep apnea, alcohol, caffeine, and food allergies, among other things. Addressing the cause of your AFib may help to lessen symptoms or even eliminate them. Steps that you can take right now to reduce your risk of AFib include:

  • Eat a 100 Year Heart Diet
  • Eliminate sugar, gluten, and processed foods 
  • Reduce alcohol consumption
  • Do not smoke
  • Watch your caffeine intake
  • Get good quality sleep
  • Reduce stress 
  • Move your body
  • Minimize exposure to toxins
  • Reduce exposure to EMF
  • Spend time in the sun

Next steps

Once the heart experiences atrial fibrillation, it can be difficult, although not impossible, to change course. The best cure for AFib is to prevent it in the first place. It’s never too early (or late!) to take steps to ensure that you achieve your 100 Year Heart. Download this free guide for more info on surprising risk factors for AFib that you might not know about!

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Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD

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