Some symptoms can be difficult to pinpoint – here’s what to look for
Although only 1 percent of the general population is diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, the disorder is far more likely to strike people over 65. That means your risk grows as time goes on, and in order to avoid major complications like stroke, you’ll need to know how to spot AFib early on.
When does a strange sensation warrant a trip to the doctor? That can be a difficult call to make. Although each case of atrial fibrillation involves an electrical misfiring in the atria of the heart, the disorder can affect different people in different ways. The key is to determine what’s unusual for you and commit to having any chest or heart discomfort checked out right away.
4 little changes that can point to big problems
There may not be any noticeable changes in the earliest stages, but as atrial fibrillation progresses, many people start to notice some abnormal chest sensations. What starts as a little random flutter could soon become more frequent, and intermittent (or paroxysmal) AFib could become persistent or permanent AFib.
Chest pain is a good indication that something’s wrong, but when it comes to AFib, it’s not the not the only symptom to watch out for. Here are four other changes to monitor:
1. A racing heartbeat. Ever feel like your heart is about to jump out of your chest? This sensation is fairly common when you’re frightened or excited, but it can also be more than a natural physiological reaction.
When your heart is in fibrillation, too many electrical signals are sent into your atria, competing to get through the AV node – the gateway to your heart’s lower ventricles. This mess of electrical signals can result in a fast heart rate or an erratic pulse that alternately speeds up and slows down.
2. A fluttering sensation. The feeling that your heart has just skipped a beat is often nothing to worry about: heart palpitations are common, and all it can take is a fright or bout of exercise to bring on a “hiccup” in your heart rhythm. However, when unusual flutters start to happen more regularly, seemingly out of nowhere, your heart could be in AFib.
3. Fatigue and exhaustion. When your heart isn’t functioning efficiently, it can’t deliver an adequate amount of oxygenated blood to your tissues. And when your body isn’t getting the oxygen it needs, fatigue, weakness, and lethargy are common consequences.
Sometimes fatigue goes hand in hand with a racing heartbeat: it can be physically exhausting to deal with a high-speed heart, especially when it brings an adrenaline response.
4. Tightness in the chest. Many things can cause a feeling of constriction in your chest. If heartburn is to blame, the discomfort (though frustrating) generally isn’t too damaging, and an antacid can often take care of it. However, AFib can also cause a feeling of tightness in the chest, so make it a point to check out any unexplained burning sensation that doesn’t go away.
Like many diseases, AFib can spark other discomforts as it progresses. For instance, you could start to feel lightheaded or short of breath for no reason. Maybe activities that were once easy for you are now strenuous, and you feel groggy and tired when you wake up in the morning. These sorts of changes in your energy levels can be more serious than they seem.
Is it really AFib?
AFib symptoms are notoriously varied. Some people report sporadic fluttering while others complain of chest tightness. You might notice a palpitation immediately, but for another person the feeling can be so slight it goes unnoticed. The bottom line is that AFib can resemble a number of other disorders, such as:
Acid reflux. Stomach acid moving up the esophagus is to blame for the burning sensation that characterizes heartburn, and sometimes it becomes quite painful. In fact, some people have mistaken a severe case of heartburn for a heart attack.
Hyperthyroidism. A thyroid gland that produces too much thyroid hormone can cause heart palpitations, breathlessness, and a fast heart rate. This can lead to a host of uncomfortable feelings, like anxiety and irritability.
A panic attack. Panic or anxiety attacks tend to come on suddenly, with a surge of adrenaline that affects your whole body, sometimes bringing on painful or tight sensations in the chest. Your heart may begin to palpitate, and you might feel lightheaded, too.
Other heart disorders. AFib can mimic other disorders, like tachycardia and sinus arrhythmia. Congestive heart failure often presents with AFib, too. Any ongoing heart of chest symptoms call for a check-up – only a qualified medical doctor can provide an accurate diagnosis.
Although AFib can be mistaken for a variety of conditions, it’s more about the set of symptoms rather than one single discomfort. Also, while a sudden, major change can spell trouble, AFib symptoms often come in cycles: you may notice a surge of symptoms, then nothing for a while.
Diagnosing AFib often involves an EKG (or ECG) to evaluate your heart rhythm. The sensors can usually pick up AFib irregularities, but only if you experience symptoms frequently. Paroxysmal AFib typically causes unpredictable and infrequent symptoms. In these cases, a monitoring device prescribed by your doctor might be a good choice.
If these first tests don’t turn up a positive AFib diagnosis, other tests are available. The key is to describe your symptoms clearly and completely so your doctor can narrow down options and understand how your discomfort may be triggered. The more detailed you can be now, the more accurate and personalized your testing can be from the start.