A skipped heartbeat, the feeling of fish flopping around in your chest, a racing heart rate; these are the physical feelings of atrial fibrillation—the most common type of heart rhythm disorder. The symptoms are different for different people, but experts agree that ignoring these warning signs can be hazardous to your health.
"When someone experiences their first episode of atrial fibrillation they may not think too much of it," says Anne Gillis, M.D., president of the Heart Rhythm Society – an international organization of heart rhythm specialists. "It feels quite different from having a heart attack, so many people pass it off as nothing serious."
However, just because the disorder lacks the chest-clutching drama of a coronary, doesn't mean it's not dangerous.
A growing concern
Over three million Americans suffer from atrial fibrillation—a type of irregular heartbeat that occurs when the upper chambers of a person's heart (called, the atria) quiver out of rhythm with the lower chambers.
People can develop an abnormal heart rhythm at any age, but the risk for atrial fibrillation increases as an individual gets older. With millions of baby boomers beginning to enter their twilight years, the number of people affected by the disorder is expected to double.
In the heart of a healthy individual, the atria typically beat anywhere between 60 and 80 times every minute. By contrast, a person with atrial fibrillation may experience as many as 400 irregular spasms in the same time frame.
Not usually deadly on its own, research has linked atrial fibrillation, with an increased risk of dementia, stroke, and heart failure.
When compared to the general population, people suffering from atrial fibrillation are five times more likely to have a stroke. The American Heart Association estimates that 15 percent of strokes nationwide are caused by untreated atrial fibrillation.
Gillis also cautions that, over the long term, consistently erratic beats can fatigue heart muscles and hasten heart failure.
Know what to look for and when to speak up
The warning signs of atrial fibrillation can range from a minor fluttering feeling in the chest, to a full-on fainting episode.
According to Gillis, some people first notice a problem during physical activity. They can't handle a flight of stairs without losing their breath, or they aren't able to make it through their usual 40-minute spin class without having to stop.
The tricky thing about atrial fibrillation is that it can be hard to explain. "People often have a difficult time describing their symptoms. They know that something's not quite right, they don't feel well, but they can't define it," says Gillis.
Especially when it comes to your heart, it's important to resist the urge to shrug off a seemingly minor symptom.
"Caregivers (and women, in particular) tend to underestimate the symptoms related to heart disease," Gillis says, "They focus so much on the senior that the end up trivializing their own health."
Because the symptoms of atrial fibrillation can be varied and vague, Gillis urges those with concerning symptoms to speak up and address their concerns with their primary care doctor.
Getting diagnosed is the first step towards gaining access to the variety of treatments, both surgical and non-surgical (prescription medications), available to help manage irregular heart rhythms and their potential complications.