Life is full of moments that make your heart beat faster than usual—going on a first date, running a marathon or dancing in your living room are just a few things that can increase your heart rate.
However, if your heartbeat becomes fast and irregular it can be a sign of a more serious heart condition like atrial fibrillation (AFib).
1. What is AFib?
AFib occurs when the electrical signals that let your heart know when to pump blood get disrupted.
"The heart's efficiency to pump can decrease by up to 30% when you have AFib," says Matthew B. Hillis, MD, FACC, a cardiologist and electrophysiologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of Main Line Health. "That puts you at risk for blood clots, which can lead to a stroke."
More than 12 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, or AFib, by 2030. But some people will never display AFib symptoms or have AFib risk factors, which is why it's important to see your provider regularly.
2. What is an irregular heartbeat?
An irregular heartbeat, referred to as arrhythmia, describes when a heartbeat is too fast, too slow or erratic. This is one of the signs of Afib—your heart's upper and lower chambers don't work together seamlessly, causing changes to your normal heartbeat.
An irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia can feel like your heart is fluttering or quivering. In addition to your heart quivering, common symptoms of AFib also include:
- Heart flutters or thumping
- Shortness of breath
If you've had any of these AFib symptoms, contact a Main Line Health cardiologist.
3. How does a doctor test for AFib?
Your provider will run diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your symptoms and recommend treatments to manage and monitor them.
They'll first look over your medical history and examine your body. Your doctor may select certain tests to diagnose AFib. Those tests can include:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG), which records your heart's electrical activity
- Blood tests
- Holter monitoring, which tracks your heart's rhythm over a period of time
- Echocardiogram (echo), which takes images of your heart as it's beating
- Stress tests
"A cardiologist can monitor your AFib symptoms and lower your risk of complications such as stroke and heart failure," says Dr. Hillis.
Another way to monitor your heart is through an insertable cardiac monitor. These monitors collect data on your heartbeat daily, and the info is sent wirelessly to your doctor.
"This allows your doctor to see when your heart starts beating differently," says Dr. Hillis. "The device is easily inserted under the skin right in your doctor's office and takes less than ten minutes."
Treatment plans vary based on the test results. Your doctor may suggest a diet and lifestyle change, or medication like heart rate slowing medications and anticoagulants (blood thinners). For some cases, your provider may recommend a catheter ablation procedure. Once diagnosed, you may be able to monitor your heartbeat on your own by checking your pulse.
4. How do you monitor your AFib?
Once you've been diagnosed with AFib, it's important to monitor your symptoms because AFib symptoms can sometimes be a sign of something more serious, like a heart attack.
The first step is knowing which symptoms to keep an eye out for and learning how to check your pulse. Checking your pulse regularly will let you know when your heartbeat is irregular and if you should call your healthcare provider.
Here's how you check your pulse:
- Take your first two fingers (excluding your thumb) and place them on your wrist (palm facing upwards).
- Count each heartbeat for 30 seconds with a timer.
- Multiply the number of beats by 2.
- The number you get is your heart rate, or pulse. It's measured in beats per minute. A normal resting heart rate for most adults is usually between 60 and 100 beats per minute.
An irregular pulse is usually not something to be concerned about, but it's important to reach out to your doctor so a cardiologist can evaluate your heart if you notice anything out of the ordinary.
5. When should you call a cardiac specialist if you have AFib?
If you have AFib and have been treating your symptoms at home, it's time to call a cardiologist if your heart rate or pulse is abnormal. You should also let your provider know when you're having symptoms like dizziness or shortness of breath.
Your healthcare provider will be able to help you manage the symptoms and find a treatment that works for you. They may even refer you to an electrophysiologist, which is a doctor who specializes in heart rhythm disorders.
6. When should you call 9-1-1 if you have AFib?
It's usually not necessary to call 911 if you have AFib, however if you're experiencing symptoms like chest pain, you could be having a more serious heart problem like a heart attack and should seek medical attention immediately.
Always listen to what your body is telling you and err on the side of caution if something doesn't seem right.
Another reason to call 911 is if you experience any stroke symptoms.
"A person diagnosed with AFib has a higher chance of having a stroke," says Dr. Hillis, "and strokes related to AFib are often also more severe."
Signs you could be having a stroke include:
- Trouble speaking, slurring your words
- Severe headache
- Difficulty with vision in one or both eyes
- Numbness or weakness in your arms, legs, or face
About 1 in 7 strokes occur because of AFib.
An AFib diagnosis might make you nervous when you think about the risks of stroke and heart attacks, but it doesn't have to. Your provider might prescribe medications that will prevent blood clots. There are even procedures and treatments, including implantation of a left atrial appendage closure device, that may be helpful to reduce your risk.
Getting treatment for AFib
Your heart has a big job—it's the power supply for your body. The heart pumps blood that carries oxygen and nutrients, which your body needs.
Your life doesn't stop with an AFib diagnosis, but you do need the right treatment to manage your heart health. You owe it to your heart not to ignore the symptoms and to get the support you need.
Schedule an appointment with Matthew Hillis, MD, FACC
Learn more about Lankenau Heart Institute's Cardiac Arrhythmia Program
Know the difference between sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack