If you have atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is an irregular heartbeat, you may feel a fluttering in your chest or it may seem as if your heart is racing. Sometimes, these episodes stop on their own. In other cases, some kind of intervention can be necessary.
If you think you might have AFib, it’s important to see your doctor because AFib can lead to strokes and heart failure. There are medications and procedures designed to control symptoms and decrease the risk of stroke. But you may also find success with some noninvasive strategies at home. This is known as self-conversion, in which your heart converts back to a normal rhythm without medication or other medical treatment. At a minimum, these strategies may help you relax and cope with the episode until it stops.
You should only try techniques to stop an AFib episode at home after consulting with your doctor first. It’s important to know when your symptoms are serious enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room or at least a trip to see your doctor. Call a doctor if you have:
- an irregular heartbeat with feelings of lightheadedness or faintness
- chest pain or other symptoms of a heart attack
- facial drooping, arm weakness, difficulty speaking, or other symptoms of a stroke
You should also call your doctor if an AFib episode lasts longer than what you normally experience.
1. Slow breathing
Slow, focused, abdominal breathing may be enough to relax you and your heart. Sit quietly and take in a long, slow breath and hold it for a moment before exhaling slowly. Try holding one hand gently but firmly against your diaphragm (around the area of your lower ribs) as you exhale.
You can learn this type of breathing through biofeedback training. Biofeedback is a type of therapy in which you use electronic monitoring of some of the body’s involuntary functions, such as heart rate, to train yourself to have voluntary control over those functions. Among other techniques, biofeedback involves:
- focused breathing
- muscle control
Talk with your doctor about whether you would be a good candidate for biofeedback therapy.
2. Vagal maneuvers
For certain people who have paroxysmal AFib, certain maneuvers may help reset your heart back into a steady rhythm. Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation is a type of AFib in which episodes usually resolve within a few days. One maneuver that may help end your AFib episode sooner is drinking a glass of cold water to help “shock” the heart a little.
Other similar techniques that can affect the heart’s electrical system include coughing and bearing down as though you were having a bowel movement. These are called vagal maneuvers because they are designed to trigger a response in the vagus nerve, a major nerve that affects your heart function.
Vagal maneuvers may not be safe or appropriate for everyone with AFib, so be sure to discuss this with your doctor.
If you’re in the middle of an AFib episode, a little gentle yoga may help settle your heart down. Even if it can’t stop an episode that’s already started, yoga may help reduce the frequency of episodes in general. A 2015 study found that people with AFib who took antiarrhythmic medications and went through yoga training achieved significant reductions in blood pressure and heart rate. They did this while also achieving a better a quality of life.
If you’re an athlete dealing with AFib, you may find symptom relief by exercising. In a case study from 2002, a 45-year-old athlete with paroxysmal AFib was successful at halting AFib episodes by working out on an elliptical machine or a cross-country skiing machine.
While certain exercises may help stop an AFib episode, you shouldn’t try this approach without first consulting your doctor.
Preventing an AFib episode
The best way to stop an AFib episode is to prevent one from happening in the first place. You can reduce your odds of having an AFib episode in two ways: maintaining good heart health and avoiding AFib triggers.
If you already have AFib, you might have discovered that certain behaviors can trigger an episode. Binge drinking alcohol is one. Even a highly caffeinated energy drink can be a problem. Other common triggers include stress and poor sleep.
Pay attention to your triggers and talk with your doctor about lifestyle changes you should make to help keep AFib episodes at bay.
Maintaining your heart health
It’s not always clear why people develop AFib. You may have a condition called lone atrial fibrillation, in which you have no other heart-related health problems. In these cases, it’s difficult to pin down a specific cause of your AFib.
But many people with AFib have a history of conditions related to heart health, including:
You may be able to keep your heart pumping smoothly for a long time if you:
- control your blood pressure
- manage your cholesterol levels
- eat a heart-healthy diet
- exercise for 20 minutes most days of the week
- quit smoking
- maintain a healthy weight
- get enough sleep
- reduce stress in your life
Talk with your doctor about what else you can do maintain or improve your heart health.