When you put your hand on your chest, you might feel your heart's familiar lub-dub beat. If your heart races rather than beats and the feeling lasts for a few minutes, that’s a sign you might have a condition called atrial fibrillation. You might hear it called AFib for short.
Some of these symptoms, such as shortness of breath or chest pain, can mimic those of a heart attack. If you aren’t sure whether you have AFib or you're having a heart attack, call your doctor or 911.
What Is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)?
When you have this condition, faulty electrical signals make your heart flutter or beat too fast. This abnormal rhythm stops your heart from pumping as well as it should. Your blood flow can slow enough to pool and form clots. AFib raises your chances for a stroke and other heart complications.
What Are the Symptoms of AFib?
You might feel:
- Heart palpitations -- a flutter in your chest
- Pain and pressure in your chest
- Short of breath
Not everyone with AFib has a racing or pounding heartbeat. A few things can affect whether you have symptoms and how severe they are, including:
- Your age -- older people often don't have symptoms
- What caused your AFib
- How much it affects your heart's ability to pump
What Does AFib Feel Like?
You might feel a flutter or quiver in your chest when your heart beats. Your heart might beat faster than usual, pound, or race. The feeling often lasts for a few minutes. Sometimes your heart will skip a beat.
A regular heartbeat, or what your doctor will call normal sinus rhythm is a “lub-dub, lub-dub” sound. Your heart contracts and relaxes to move blood from the upper chambers (called the atria) to the lower ones (the ventricles) and out to your body.
How Long Does It Last?
Doctors classify AFib by how long your symptoms last. The fluttering goes on longer with some forms than others:
- Paroxysmal fibrillation last 7 days or less
- Persistent AFib lasts for more than 7 days
- Permanent AFib doesn't go away
If your AFib continues for many months or years, you can reach the point where you barely notice the symptoms. Sometimes, they don't go away on their own. Your doctor may have to treat you to bring your heart back into the right rhythm.
When Should I Call a Doctor?
Call your doctor if your heart doesn't go back into a normal rhythm within a few minutes, or your symptoms get worse. Call 911 right away if you have these symptoms, which could be signs of a heart attack or stroke:
- Pain or pressure in the middle of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes
- Pain that spreads to your jaw, neck, arms, back, or stomach
- Cold sweat
- Drooping face
- Arm weakness
- Trouble speaking
Your doctor will do tests to check your heartbeat and the electrical impulses in your heart. These and other tests can show whether you have AFib.
If you do have an irregular heartbeat, you can get treatments to bring it back into a normal rhythm.