How to Stop an AFib Episode

A quivery heartbeat or flutter in your chest: two telltale signs you could be in atrial fibrillation, or AFib. That means your heart is beating out of sync. As weird or scary as an episode may feel, AFib by itself usually isn't deadly.

Some episodes of AFib can come and go on their own. Others may need treatment to get your heart back to a normal rate and rhythm. Sometimes, you may be able to take steps to help ease symptoms or stop an episode when it starts.

Talk to your doctor about what's safe and makes sense for you.

Call 911?

If you have chest pain, yes. You could be having a heart attack.

Deep, Mindful Breathing

This can help you relax and calm your nerves when your heart is racing.

  • Sit quietly and close your eyes.
  • Put one hand on your belly.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose, feeling your stomach stretch out.
  • Breathe out slowly through your mouth. Repeat.

Valsalva Maneuver

When your heart is beating fast, you feel dizzy, or you have other symptoms, this simple trick may help:

  • Hold your nose.
  • Close your mouth.
  • Try to blow the air out, "popping" your ears.

This stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps lower your heart rate. You can also do it by coughing or tensing your stomach muscles, like you're trying to poop.

Face in Cold Water

You may hear this called the diving reflex. When you dunk your face into icy water, it also stimulates your vagus nerve, and your body responds by lowering your heart rate.

Yoga

People with AFib who do yoga regularly may feel better and have lower heart rates and blood pressures. Other studies show doing yoga can lead to fewer episodes of AFib.

Scientists think the simple movements and deep, steady breathing calm the nervous system. It may work during an episode, too.

To get started with yoga, "child's pose" is simple and relaxing.

  1. Get on your hands and knees on the floor.
  2. Hold your back straight in a "tabletop" position.
  3. Slowly move your hips back and extend your arms, keeping your hands planted.
  4. Tuck your tailbone to sit your butt on your heels. You may need to spread your knees farther apart to sink back enough.
  5. Keep breathing as you feel the stretch through your arms and back.

Try a class if your doctor says it's OK. Studios often have no- or low-cost introductory offers for new students. Make sure it's a beginner-friendly class and a gentle style of yoga. Get there early and let the teacher know about your AFib.

Continued

Exercise

If you're an athlete, you might stop an AFib episode by exercising through it. A 2002 case study in the New England Journal of Medicine found a 45-year old athlete stopped his symptoms by working out. He used an elliptical machine or a cross country ski machine.

Definitely check with your doctor before trying this method.

Biofeedback

Through this therapy, you'll learn how to control body functions such as your heart rate.

The therapist puts sensors on your fingertips or earlobes. These sensors are hooked up to a computer so you can see your heart rate in real time and how it responds to different relaxation techniques. You could try focused breathing or visualization, for example, to see if that helps slow your heart rate.

Call Your Doctor

After the episode passes, let your doctor know. They may want run tests to make sure the symptoms were caused by AFib, and not another condition.

If it's happening a lot, you may need to change your treatment.

Prevent AFib Attacks

Fewer AFib episodes will help prevent blood clots and lower your chance of stroke and heart failure.

Avoid triggers, such as too much caffeine (perhaps from an energy drink), too much alcohol, a lot of stress, and not enough sleep.

Keep your heart healthy. Take any medicines your doctor prescribed as directed. Eat well -- a diet low in salt and solid fats, and high in fruits, veggies, and whole grains -- and follow an active lifestyle. Don't smoke.

You can lead a normal life when you have AFib. Go ahead and work out, play sports, travel, and have sex, as long as you clear it with your doctor first.

You may need to be more careful with certain activities though. Most people with AFib can drive, for example. But if you have symptoms, such as feeling dizzy or lightheaded, don't get behind the wheel, or pull over right away.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on August 14, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American Heart Association: "What are the Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF)?" "Tachycardia: Fast Heart Rate," "FAQs of Atrial Fibrillation," "Prevention Strategies for Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF)."

Mayo Clinic: "Atrial fibrillation," "Intimidated by yoga? 3 easy ways to get started."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Skipping a beat — the surprise of heart palpitations."

Worthing Rice Apprentice Program, Computational and Applied Mathematics, Rice University: "Vagus nerve."

European Heart Journal: "Yoga and atrial fibrillation."

Journal of Thoracic Disease: "Alternative medicine in atrial fibrillation treatment—Yoga, acupuncture, biofeedback and more."

Oklahoma Heart Institute: "Can Yoga Relieve Atrial Fibrillation?"

New England Journal of Medicine: "Self-Cardioversion of Paroxysmal Lone Atrial Fibrillation with Exercise."

Cleveland Clinic: "Biofeedback," "Atrial Fibrillation (Afib): Management and Treatment."

AFib Matters: "Living With Atrial Fibrillation."

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