What Is Atrial Fibrillation or AFib?
AFib is an irregular heartbeat that can increase your risk of stroke or heart failure. AFib is when your heart flutters, beats unevenly, or beats quickly. You may have symptoms some of the time or all the time, or you might not know you have it.
What Does AFib Feel Like?
Some people do not feel anything or have any problems with AFib. But problems can include:
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Uneven, fluttering, or racing heart beat (palpitations)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Chest discomfort or tightness
- Feeling short of breath
- Sudden weight gain (examples: 2-3 pounds overnight or 3-5 pounds in a week)
Risk Factors for AFib
- Angina (chest discomfort)
- Had a heart attack,
- Heart bypass, or heart stents
- Heart valve problems
- High blood pressure
- Heart failure
- Kidney disease
- Thyroid problems
- A weight problem (obesity)
No matter what risk factors you have, AFib can be controlled.
Why is AFib a Problem?
Afib Can Lead to A Stroke
The irregular heart beat can make a blood clot form in the heart. The clot can break off into the blood stream and move to the brain. This cuts off the blood supply to the brain and causes a stroke.
This picture shows how a blood clot can travel from the heart to the brain, causing a stroke.
Michael Linkinhoker, Link Studio, LLC, for National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.
AFib can lead to heart failure
AFib sometimes makes the heart weak. This is called heart failure. If you already have heart failure, AFib may make it worse. However, treating your AFib may make your heart failure better.
This picture shows a normal heart and one with heart failure. See how the heart with heart failure is very large. It doesn’t pump as well as the normal heart.
How Do I Know if I Have AFib?
Your doctor or nurse can tell you if you have AFib. He or she will take your health history and give you a physical exam. There are also tests for AFib.
Your doctor or nurse will ask about:
- Any symptoms you have
- Your history of heart or lung disease, high blood pressure, or thyroid problems
- Your health habits, like smoking, drinking coffee or alcohol, and exercise
You will have a complete check-up and other tests for AFib.
Monitor & Echo Tests
EKG (Electrocardiogram EKG or ECG)
The EKG records the electrical pattern of your heart. It will show if your heart beat is regular.
Holter or Event Monitor
This is an EKG recorder you wear on your body for a certain period of time. It records your heart beat.
Your nurse or doctor will ask you to write down any symptoms you have while wearing it.
The Echo Technician gently presses a wand on your chest. The wand takes pictures of your heart’s chambers and valves. The echo also measures how strong your heart pumps.
Blood tests, such as thyroid and complete blood count, can also help to see why you have AFib.
Stress tests show if blood flow to your heart is normal during exercise. Most stress tests use a treadmill.
- Basic treadmill test
You walk on a treadmill to stress your heart. It gets faster and steeper every few minutes. A nurse or doctor will watch your EKG and your blood pressure. They will ask about any symptoms you have
- Echo stress test
While you are resting, you will have an echo test. Then you walk on a treadmill to stress your heart. When you finish walking, you will have another echo to see how well your heart pumps blood.
- Nuclear stress test
You walk on a treadmill to stress your heart. Then you will be given a medicine through a vein in your arm that shows the blood flow to your heart. If you can’t walk on a treadmill, your doctor can give you a medicine that works like exercise to stress your heart. Your nurse or doctor will decide which test is right for you.
What Can I Do if I Have AFib?
1. Get regular check-ups.
2. Learn about medicines and other treatments. (See below)
3. Check your pulse daily.
4. Be good to your body. Follow the tips on our page, “Live a Full Life with AFib”.
Treatments for AFib
This treatment can put your heart back into its normal beat. Your doctor will give you medicine to make you sleep for a few minutes. Then the doctor gives your heart a tiny electric shock. The electric shock stops the AFib and starts regular heart beats.
The doctor does a test to find the heart cells that cause your AFib. Then the doctor sends a signal through a tube straight to these cells that stops the AFib.
A pacemaker is a small device that can tell when your heart is beating too slow or too fast. It helps keep the heart beat regular. The doctor usually puts it under the skin on the chest.
You will take some new medicines. Medicines can help by:
- Keeping your heart from beating too fast
- Changing your heart to a normal beat
- Preventing a blood clot and a stroke
Check Your Pulse Daily
Check your heart beat or pulse, every day. Also, be sure to check it when you have any of these symptoms:
- More shortness of breath than usual
- Feeling lightheaded or weak
- Fast or racing heart beat
How to check your pulse:
- Place the pads of 2 or 3 fingers on the inside of your wrist, just below your thumb.
- Press down until you feel your pulse. Be patient—it takes practice!
- Is your pulse regular?
- How many beats do you have in a minute?
Call your nurse or doctor:
- If your pulse has been regular, and now it isn’t
- If your pulse is over 100 beats a minute
Live a Full Life with AFib
Follow these tips:
- If you smoke, quit.
- Don’t drink alcohol.
- Exercise. Walking 20–30 minutes a day is great exercise.
- Eat lots of vegetables, fruits and fiber.
- Eat very little saturated fat and salt.
- Learn about your medicines.
- Get rid of some stress.
Get Rid of Some Stress
Stress can make any health problem worse, including AFib. Figure out what stresses you and what you can do to relax.
Try these tips:
- Think positive. Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do.
- Talk about your feelings and needs.
- Meditate, read, listen to music, write in a journal.
- Stay active. Exercise daily.
- Try massage, yoga, or tai-chi.
- Spend time with family & friends.
- Volunteer to help others.
Create a Healthy Plate
View tips and sample meal plans at ChooseMyPlate.gov
Learn About Your Medicines
Keep an up-to-date list of ALL your medicines and supplements. Always keep the list with you.
- Tell all your health care providers that you have AFib. Be sure to tell them that you are on
medicine. This is really important if your medicine is to prevent blood clots.
- If you have questions about your medicine, talk to your nurse, doctor or pharmacist.
Tips for Taking Medicines
- Talk with your nurse or doctor about making your medicine schedule simple.
- Let your nurse, doctor or pharmacist know if you can’t afford medicines. They can help find
- Use a weekly pillbox.
- Use a timer or alarm to help you take your medicine at the same time each day.
- If you don’t feel well after taking a medicine, call your nurse or doctor.
- Never stop taking your medicine unless your nurse or doctor tells you to.
- Write on your calendar when you need to refill your medicines. Refill at least 1–2 weeks before you run out.
Disclaimer: While PCNA strives to provide reliable, up-to-date health information, this and other PCNA education materials are for informational purposes only and not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Only your healthcare provider can diagnose and treat a medical problem.