Palpitations and Other Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation
Thump, Thump, Thump … THUD
The human heart beats 2.5 billion times in the course of a typical human lifetime. You rarely have any conscious awareness of this muscle, as blood quietly swishes through its chambers. These chambers include the atria, which receive blood returning from the body. But sometimes a heavy thud comes crashing from the left side of your chest. It may merely mean that you are nervous or excited. Or it may be a signal of atrial fibrillation.
Click through the slideshow to discover more about the symptoms of atrial fibrillation.
The Sensation of a Palpitation
A palpitation feels very strange, like something indefinable is wrong in your chest. You may experience a mild fluttering sensation or become suddenly aware that your heart skipped a beat.
It might feel like something alien is going on in your body. “It really felt like I had a fish flopping around in my chest where my heart should be,” says Mellanie True Hills, the founder of StopAfib.org. “It felt like when you are exercising and you can’t breathe. Or palpitations can be subtle. They can feel like butterflies.”
What’s Going On?
If you could see your heart at the time of your atrial fibrillation, or “AFib” as many call it, the muscle might remind you more of a nervous rabbit than the strong, self-assured lion it normally is.
The four chambers of the heart normally work in smooth coordination 60 to 100 times a minute to circulate blood throughout your body, notes StopAfib.org. The upper atria and the lower ventricles perform a ballet to squeeze efficiently for blood flow. In an atrial fibrillation episode, the atria race or quiver.
In addition to palpitations, your atria may send you other signals of distress. These include shortness of breath and chest pain. You may also feel:
- or have problems exercising
A final symptom can be confusion. Don’t be too confused if you don’t have any symptoms, however—atrial fibrillation can also be asymptomatic. It can turn up during an exam, for instance, or during an electrocardiogram set up for another purpose.
Your Doctor’s Questions
If you experience symptoms of atrial fibrillation, talk to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. He or she will ask about signs of fatigue and lightheadedness. Additionally, your doctor will check your feet and ankles to see if they are swollen, as this may indicate heart problems. Questions your provider may ask include:
- Does your chest hurt?
- Do you have diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, or heart or lung disease? Do any family members have these disorders?
- Do any of your family members have atrial fibrillation?
- Do you smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs or caffeine?
Tests to Confirm a Diagnosis
The frequency of your symptoms will determine how your healthcare team tests you for atrial fibrillation. If you have chronic, longstanding atrial fibrillation, an electrocardiogram (EKG) can confirm the diagnosis. If you have sporadic events, you may wear a small monitor for up to 48 hours that can capture information about how your heart behaves.
If exercise triggers your atrial fibrillation, you’ll be scheduled for a treadmill test. And if you have very infrequent episodes, you may need to go into a lab for a test that involves catheters and stimulation of the heart (in order to produce erratic behavior).
Elderly More Likely Not to Have Palpitations
For the most part, people who turn up in doctors’ offices with atrial fibrillation complained of palpitations. But a 2012 study by cardiologists at the University of Foggia in Italy found that among the elderly, especially those above age 70, atrial fibrillation may be present without the sensation of palpitations.
Emergency responders in the study assessed almost 28,000 patients with portable EKG devices. They uncovered atrial fibrillation in nearly 12 percent of emergency medical services patients with suspected heart disease, with typical symptoms decreasing among older patients.
Symptoms Raise a Red Flag
This disconnect between the upper and lower chambers of the heart leads to inefficient blood flow. Your blood pressure can fall, bringing about the risk of heart failure.
Also, because blood doesn’t empty completely from the atria, dangerous clots may form and break off. If they travel through the ventricle and reach the brain, you could experience a stroke.
Be sure to seek medical care promptly if you experience atrial fibrillation, even if your symptoms are subtle. Feeling faint, for instance, can be enough of a reason to seek help.
- About the Heart. (2009). StopAfib.org. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from http://www.stopafib.org/heart.cfm
- Amazing Heart Facts. (n.d.). Nova Online. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/heart/heartfacts.html
- Brunetti, N.D. (2012, June). Atrial fibrillation with symptoms other than palpitations: incremental diagnostic sensitivity with at-home tele-cardiology assessment for emergency medical service. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 19(3), 306-13. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21502279
- Heart palpitations. (2012). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003081.htm
- Hills, M.T., personal communication, October 15, 2013.
- How Is Atrial Fibrillation Diagnosed? (2011). National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/diagnosis.html
- How to Know It's Atrial Fibrillation. (2009). StopAfib.org. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from http://www.stopafib.org/know.cfm
- Merck. (2011). The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from http://books.google.com/books?id=05ANweKRKoQC&pg=PT799&dq=Palpitations+and+Other+Symptoms+of+Atrial+Fibrillation+merck&hl=en&sa=X&ei=j3BbUpOsGoyK9QSMzYCwDQ&ved=0CFYQ6AEwAw - v=onepage&q=Palpitations and Other Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation merck&f=false
- What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation? (n.d.). National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health//dci/Diseases/af/af_signs.html
- What Is Atrial Fibrillation? (2009). StopAfib.org. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from http://www.stopafib.org/what.cfm