How Do I Know if I Have Atrial Fibrillation?

a woman and a man walking near water

Understanding atrial fibrillation or AFib is key to knowing how to treat it. Learn more about why it happens, common symptoms, the different types and more to help determine if you might have AFib.

Understanding AFib warning signs and symptoms

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, is a condition that causes your heartbeat to be irregular and it also speeds up your heart rate. If you’re affected, chances are you’ve had at least some of the symptoms, even if you haven’t realized what they point to. Continue reading to learn more about AFib and gain an understanding of some key warning signs and symptoms.

Why do some people have atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation causes the atria (the two upper chambers in the heart) to beat irregularly and out of sync with the ventricles (the two lower chambers of the heart). The upper chambers “quiver” due to erratic electrical signals and this produces a rapid and irregular heartbeat.

Technically, you’re more likely to have atrial fibrillation if you’re older but plenty of younger people are affected by it too. Atrial fibrillation can also run in families.

Other factors that can make atrial fibrillation more likely include high blood pressure (especially if it’s not controlled through medication and diet), chronic conditions, and problems affecting the heart such as heart disease, heart attack, congenital heart defects and abnormal heart valves.

a woman with hands at her temples

What does atrial fibrillation feel like?

For most people, atrial fibrillation is symptomatic and there will be warning signs that something isn’t right. The first sign of atrial fibrillation can be a missed or skipped beat, followed very quickly by a “thudding” or “flipping” feeling in the chest and a fast, racing heart rate. This is one of the most common signs of atrial fibrillation and it can be really scary, to the point of feeling like you’re having a heart attack.

Symptoms can be fairly minor or very intense, depending on how severe your atrial fibrillation is. Some people only get a few relatively minor symptoms and can still go about normal life with them, while others are completely debilitated.

Some of the common symptoms that people with atrial fibrillation can experience include:

  • Heart palpitations, which produce sensations of a racing, “flipping”, quivering heartbeat — a lot like a fish reacts when out of water
  • Pain/discomfort in the chest
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Fatigue and weakness, even when doing simple tasks that aren’t exhausting
  • Feeling faint and exhausted after an episode of atrial fibrillation
  • Finding it difficult to do anything very physical, such as exercising
  • Dizziness and feeling light headed
  • Confusion
  • Sweating
  • Feeling panicky and anxious

What do these symptoms actually feel like? Some of the comments that are often made by people with atrial fibrillation are:

  • “My heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest”
  • “I feel completely wiped out”
  • “My heart is fluttering around like a butterfly”
  • “I feel like I’m having a heart attack”
  • “My heart feels as though it is flopping around in my chest”
  • “My heart has started pounding like I’ve just run a marathon”

Symptoms may not be there all the time and many people find that they go into atrial fibrillation every so often - mostly out of the blue. Others have persistent symptoms that never seem to go away.

Does everyone get symptoms?

Some people with atrial fibrillation don’t have any symptoms at all. This is known as asymptomatic atrial fibrillation, or silent AFib, and is most likely to show up during a routine medical examination.

a doctor talking to his patient

Types of atrial fibrillation

There are a few different types of atrial fibrillation and this can affect which symptoms you may experience and how long they last.

1. Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation can come on randomly and suddenly, with symptoms lasting hours or sometimes just minutes. It doesn’t last more than a week and the episodes usually end on their own. The symptoms can begin anytime and include palpitations, breathlessness, anxiety, and fatigue and weakness that develops very quickly. Feeling physically exhausted afterwards is very common with this type of atrial fibrillation.

2. Persistent atrial fibrillation lasts longer than seven days. Symptoms can be the same as with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. Treatment is needed with this type of atrial fibrillation as heart rhythm doesn’t return to normal by itself.

3. Long standing persistent atrial fibrillation is longer lasting than even persistent atrial fibrillation and usually carries on for at least 12 months.

Author by line: Travis Van Slooten is an atrial fibrillation patient who has been passionate about providing knowledge, inspiration, and support to fellow afibbers through his blog at www.livingwithatrialfibrillation.com