Recognizing What Atrial Fibrillation Feels Like

Patient Expert

There had been an illness in the family, and I had been the primary caregiver for several months. My former husband had a flare up of Crohn's Disease.   He lost a good deal of weight, and had to be put on a feeding tube. His recuperation took a long time and required at home nursing visits and two 911 calls for dehydration. It was stressful but at the same time, felt rewarding as I was able to help someone I cared about regain his health.

He was able to go to his own home and resume much of his regular activities by the end of March, and in April I was out, walking my dogs and enjoying the sunny spring days. But then I began to notice that I felt  strange in a way I couldn't quite describe.

This is when the symptoms started to show. I became more breathless when I was walking than I normally did.   In the evenings, while I was watching TV, I would notice that my lips felt tingly. I wondered if I were hyperventilating. One night when I went out with clients who were also good friends, I felt very anxious for no reason whatsoever.   I decided to do what I do best - diagnose myself - as being "stressed."

I would have convinced myself of this for quite awhile but luckily for me, a few mornings later, after I returned from my walk, I could no longer ignore the strange  feeling I had in my chest. It wasn't pain but it wasn't right, either. So I asked my friend to drive me to the cardiologist, where I learned that I was in atrial fibrillation.

My atrial fibrillation turned out to be persistent, and I had to take blood thinners and other medications. Because I had not really known when I first went into atrial fib (some people can tell immediately) I could not have a cardioversion because it might cause a stroke. I had to wait for three months and have regular blood tests to determine that my blood thinners were working correctly. Then my cardiologist performed a cardioversion and my heartbeat immediately converted to normal sinus rhythm and remained there. (I was lucky. This only happens 25% of the time.)

It is an advantage to know not only that you are  in afib but to know when it starts because sometimes a cardioversion can be performed immediately. What does it feel like to have atrial fibrillation? The answers are as varied as the people who have it.

"I went to a wild party on my campus and was up most of the night. When I woke up the next afternoon, my heart was racing and pounding. I was really scared. I thought I was having a nightmare but it wouldn't calm down. My friends took me to the student health center and they told me I had atrial fibrillation. They asked if I'd had a lot of alcohol and the answer was yes. They called it Holiday Heart. It went away a day later."

"I was in the hospital and trying to do without my patient activated morphine drip for the first time since surgery. Then...very fast heartbeat, big pauses where my heart stopped beating went away about 12 hours later and didn't come back."

"I was just plain dizzy. I felt lightheaded. I finally gave up and went to the doctor."

"We were having our regular monthly faculty meeting and suddenly I felt as if two squirrels were running in a cage in my chest. It was the weirdest feeling I ever had. I thought maybe it was indigestion. But I was wrong - it was atrial fib and turned out I had to take blood thinners."

People report feeling dizzy, feeling chest pain, or feeling tired. Others describe an anxiety with no cause.  Sometimes people feel warm, nauseated or chilled.  Still more feel nothing at all.

"I only found out I had atrial fib when I went to the doctor for some medication refills. The doctor thought my heartbeat was fast and my heart sounded a little funny. He did an ekg and there it was. After we did some more tests it turned out I had afib and that it would come and go."

"My heart flip flops and skips beats. It is so scary. It isn't so much that it races, it's more that it flops, and it's about 95 beats a minute."

Atrial fibrillation can be persistent or paroxysmal (intermittent.) Either way, it can have serious health consequences. You may know you have it, you may think something is wrong, or you may find out in a physical exam for something else entirely.   However it goes for you, knowledge is your best weapon. Learn as much as you can about this common irregular heartbeat so you can protect yourself, and those you love, from its serious consequences.