Understanding Early Warning Signs of Atrial Fibrillation

Understanding Early Warning Signs of Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation can be frightening or intimidating to some people who may be experiencing the symptoms for the very first time. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular, rapid heartbeat that occurs because the two upper chambers of the heart are beating out of coordination with the heart’s two lower chambers. [1] Episodes of atrial fibrillation come and go, but for many people, their episodes will increase in frequency until they require treatment.

In itself, an episode of atrial fibrillation is not necessarily harmful, but over time, it can lead to serious medical complications, like blood clots forming in the heart that can circulate to other organs, and lead to a blockage in blood flow. [2] Blood clots that start in the heart as a result of atrial fibrillations can lodge in an artery leading to the brain, which will result in a stroke.

There are four different types of atrial fibrillation. The mildest type, occasional, means that your symptoms come and go on their own. Persistent atrial fibrillation is occasional, but your heart will not return to normal on its own, which means that you may need medication or electric shocks to correct your heart rhythm. Long-standing persistent is a type of persistent atrial fibrillation that lasts longer than one year. Permanent atrial fibrillation means that your heart rate cannot be controlled without medication. [3]

It’s important for atrial fibrillation suffers to stay on top of their medical condition by monitoring their episodes, and seeking a doctor’s input if symptoms change.

A study published in 2009 showed that only 33 percent of patients who have atrial fibrillation think of their condition as serious, and less than half are aware that this condition means that they have an increased risk for strokes or heart-related conditions. [4]

Through a balanced, heart-heathy diet, regular exercise, and careful avoidance of excessive alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes, it is possible to reduce the risk of complications associated with atrial fibrillation and live a long and happy life.

Risk Factors

There are a few different risk factors that increases someone’s likelihood of developing atrial fibrillation. [5] This condition tends to affect people who are older than 60 years of age, have high blood pressure, and have already experienced a heart attack, or have valve problems or other congenital defects that prevent their heart from functioning normally.

One of the major risk factors for atrial fibrillation are people whose hearts are already weakened, inflamed, or experiencing abnormal rhythms or flutters. People who suffer from thyroid disease, chronic lung disease, or even sleep apnea have been shown to also have an increased risk factor for atrial fibrillation.

Although there are a number of risk factors that have been shown to be related to atrial fibrillation, it can also affect people who have not had any of these medical issues, and are otherwise completely healthy. A family history of atrial fibrillation could increase the likelihood of you developing it, which has led scientists to concentrate on the potential genetic mutations that could be causing this condition.

Signs and Symptoms

When you first experience an episode of atrial fibrillation, you may not know how to explain the feeling at first. Many people feel the odd sensation of the heart palpitations for the first time, and describe it as their heart fluttering, flopping, or beating hard through their chest. [6] This sensation can cause feelings of lightheadedness, dizziness, confusion, and panic. These are very similar sensations to the feelings that our body experiences when we’re anxious or feeling stress and can cause our brain to believe that we’re actually experiencing those emotions, even if we feel emotionally regulated at the time. It can also lead to weakness and fatigue, as well as confusion, sweating, and the feeling that we’re about to faint.

The lack of normal heart rhythms can also make exercising challenging and lead to fatigue and exhaustion during exercises that are not taxing under normal circumstances. If you feel any of these symptoms, it’s important to consult a doctor. Some people experience some mild chest pain due to the odd rhythms of their heart during episodes of atrial fibrillation, but if the pain worsens, it could be a symptom of a heart attack.

Treatment Options

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and are worried that you may have atrial fibrillation, your doctor will be able to do a physical exam and take a family medical history, which should help diagnose your condition. Once the initial investigation is complete, your doctor will order an ECG, as well as a transthoracic echocardiogram to help confirm their diagnosis. If your diagnosis is confirmed, your doctor will want to immediately start a preventative treatment plan to help avoid future strokes and will seek to treat the heart arrhythmia.

For people with persistent, long-standing persistent, or permanent atrial fibrillation, their doctor will need to both monitor and control their heart rate and rhythm, which they will do with anything from medication like beta and calcium channel blockers to surgery, depending on the severity of the condition. For moderate conditions, an electrical cardioversion is a popular option that uses a mild electrical shock to reset the heart rhythms. [7]

For more severe conditions, a surgery to insert a pacemaker is a popular option. A pacemaker is a small device implanted in the body that sends out an electrical signal that helps the heart keep a steady rhythm. [8]


  1. “Atrial Fibrillation.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 29 Dec. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/atrial-fibrillation/symptoms-causes/syc-20350624.
  2.  “What Is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF)?” American Heart Association, 6 Feb. 2017, www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/AboutArrhythmia/What-is-Atrial-Fibrillation-AFib-or-AF_UCM_423748_Article.jsp.
  3. “Which Type of Atrial Fibrillation Do You Have?” WebMD, www.webmd.com/heart-disease/atrial-fibrillation/types-atrial-fibrillation.
  4. Aliot, Etienne et al. “An International Survey of Physician and Patient Understanding, Perception, and Attitudes to Atrial Fibrillation and Its Contribution to Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality.” Europace 12.5 (2010): 626–633. PMC. Web. 19 July 2018. doi: 10.1093/europace/euq109
  5. “Risk Factors for Atrial Fibrillation (AFib).” Heart Rhythm Society, www.hrsonline.org/Patient-Resources/Heart-Diseases-Disorders/Atrial-Fibrillation-AFib/Risk-Factors-for-AFib.
  6. “Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation (AFib).” Heart Rhythm Society, www.hrsonline.org/Patient-Resources/Heart-Diseases-Disorders/Atrial-Fibrillation-AFib/Symptoms-of-AFib.
  7. “Non-Surgical Procedures for Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF).” American Heart Association, 4 Aug. 2016, www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/AboutArrhythmia/Non-surgical-Procedures-for-Atrial-Fibrillation-AFib-or-AF_UCM_423782_Article.jsp.
  8. “Pacemakers.” National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/pacemakers.