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Skipping a Beat: Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 8:04 AM

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an irregular beating of the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) and occurs with increasing frequency as people age. The American Heart Association estimates that there are more than 2.5 million cases of AFib in the United States, many of them unrecognized.

While AFib is usually not life threatening, it is a medical condition that can be serious if untreated.  AFib often requires medication to minimize the chance that complications of the rhythm occur. AFib can lead to poor blood flow in the body, weakened heart muscle, and sometimes causes blood clots to develop that could lead to stroke. Unfortunately, the signs of symptoms of AFib can differ widely from patient to patient.

Wes Fisher, MD, Cardiologist at NorthShore, lists the different symptoms of AFib to be aware of:

  • Heart palpitations: this feels like your heart is fluttering, racing or a flip-flopping sensation in your chest
  • Awareness of your heart beating, especially in an irregular or rapid fashion
  • Chest pain, pressure or discomfort at rest or with exertion
  • New fatigue or weakness
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • New shortness of breath

While it is important to know the symptoms of AFib, not all people experience symptoms. Sometimes AFib is discovered through an annual physical exam or another diagnostic test. Dr. Fischer stresses the importance of your annual physical to monitor any changes over the years.

Atrial fibrillation is more common in adults and the risk of the arrhythmia increases for adults over the age of 65. There are three different types of atrial fibrillation varying in severity: 

  • Intermittent AFib is when the symptoms come and go but stop on their own. The symptoms may last for a few minutes or a few hours. 
  • Persistent AFib is when your heart rate does not go back to normal on its own and requires treatment from your doctor to go back to normal. 
  • Permanent AFib will often require medications, such as blood thinners, to help control your heart rate and avoid blood clots. 

When is the last time you had your annual physical?