The most common symptom: a quivering or fluttering heartbeat
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common type of irregular heartbeat. The abnormal firing of electrical impulses causes the atria (the top chambers in the heart) to quiver (or fibrillate). View an animation of atrial fibrillation.
Additional common symptoms of atrial fibrillation
Sometimes people with AF have no symptoms and their condition is only detectable upon physical examination. Still, others may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat
- Fluttering or “thumping” in the chest
- Shortness of breath and anxiety
- Faintness or confusion
- Fatigue when exercising
- *Chest pain or pressure
*Chest pain or pressure is a medical emergency. You may be having a heart attack. Call 9-1-1 immediately.
The symptoms are generally the same; however the duration of the AF and underlying reasons for the condition help medical practitioners classify the type of AF problems.
- Paroxysmal fibrillation is when the heart returns to a normal rhythm on its own. People who have this type of AF may have episodes only a few times a year or their symptoms may occur every day. These symptoms are very unpredictable and often can turn into a permanent form of atrial fibrillation.
- Persistent AF is defined as an irregular rhythm that lasts for longer than 48 hours. This type of AF will not return to normal sinus rhythm on its own and will require some form of treatment.
- Permanent AF occurs when the condition lasts indefinitely and can no longer be controlled with medication.
Over a period of time, paroxysmal fibrillation may become more frequent and longer lasting, sometimes leading to permanent or chronic AF. All types of AF can increase your risk of stroke. Even if you have no symptoms at all, you are nearly 5 times more likely to have a stroke than someone who doesn’t have atrial fibrillation.
How are heart attack symptoms different from AF symptoms?
Fluttering and palpitations are often a key difference, but many heart problems have similar warning signs. If you think you may be having a heart attack, DON’T DELAY. Get emergency help by calling 9-1-1 immediately. A heart attack is a blockage of blood flow to the heart, often caused by a clot or build-up of plaque lodging in the coronary artery (a blood vessel that carries blood to part of the heart muscle). A heart attack can damage or destroy part of your heart muscle. Some heart attacks are sudden and intense — where no one doubts what's happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren't sure what's wrong and wait too long before getting help.
People living with AF should know the symptoms of a stroke
As stated earlier, having atrial fibrillation can put you at an increased risk for stroke. Here are the warning signs that you should be aware of:
View Video of Heart Attack Warning Signs
View Video of Stroke Warning Signs
Call 9-1-1 immediately if you notice one or more of these symptoms, even if they are temporary or seem to disappear.
This content was last reviewed on 05/30/2012.