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Managing AFib Symptoms

What is AFib?

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an irregular heart rhythm. It begins in the upper two chambers of the heart, called the atria. These chambers may quiver rapidly or beat irregularly. This prevents blood from effectively pumping into the ventricles. The rapid impulses from the atria may sometimes cause the ventricles to pump too rapidly. This further decreases the heart’s effectiveness.

Symptoms of AFib

An irregular heart rate can cause the heart to race or flutter. Because the heart isn’t pumping normally, people with AFib may experience the following symptoms:

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  • palpitations or a racing sensation in the heart
  • chest pain, discomfort, or pressure
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • fatigue
  • exercise intolerance
  • abdominal pain

These symptoms can last anywhere from several minutes to several hours. For those with chronic AFib, these symptoms can be persistent.

Symptoms may develop occasionally and can sometimes resolve without medical treatment (paroxysmal AFib). In this case your doctor or cardiologist will prescribe a medication to control your symptoms.

Controlling AFib symptoms

The main goal of controlling AFib symptoms is to prevent recurrent episodes. When the heart is stimulated or excited it can trigger AFib episodes. Monitoring your exercise, stress, caffeine intake, and alcohol use can help prevent AFib episodes.

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There are two main options when it comes to controlling symptoms: bringing the heart rhythm back to normal, and controlling the heart rate. Medications are typically prescribed for both of these options.

Blood thinners or anticoagulants, such as warfarin (Coumadin), help prevent strokes caused by the irregular beating of the heart. Beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and digoxin (Lanoxin) are used to control the heart rate.

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Surgical procedures are another option to bring the heart rate back to normal. Talk to your doctor about what type surgery is right for you if you have persistent AFib, blood clots, or a history of stroke.

You doctor may decide to do a radiofrequency ablation which can cure AFib, or insert a pacemaker if you have a slow heart rate. But pacing does not prevent AFib. This device sends electrical impulses to the heart muscle to generate a normal heart rate.

Read more: Pacemaker »

Symptoms of stroke

A stroke is one of the most serious complications that can arise from AFib. The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association recommend the F.A.S.T. acronym to detect the signs of a stroke:

  • F: face drooping
  • A: arm weakness
  • S: speech difficulty
  • T: time to call 911

Having AFib increases your chances of having a stroke. Close to 17 percent of strokes occur in people with AFib. This increases to 25 percent for adults over the age of 80.

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You can reduce your risk for stroke by taking the following actions:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise on a regular basis.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

Learn more: Atrial fibrillation and exercise: Risks and benefits »

Takeaway

One of the best ways to lessen AFib symptoms is to practice a healthy lifestyle. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and reducing stress are all ways to control your symptoms and lower your chances of serious complications.

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