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9 Silent Signs of Atrial Fibrillation You Should Know

Without obvious symptoms, deciphering whether or not you may have the heart condition afib requires checking your pulse and your medical history.

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What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of an arrhythmia, or a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. Due to disorganized electric signals through the chambers of the heart, the rhythm of the heartbeat is sent out of whack, speeding up from its monotonous, consistent beat to a chaotic and uneven frenzy. Episodes of these heart flutters can occur intermittently (paroxysmal atrial fibrillation) or continuously, sometimes causing someone suffering from atrial fibrillation to experience the sensation of a racing heart, chest pain, and overall weakness. Over time, such episodes can weaken the heart and cause blood clots, which can in turn cause stroke or heart failure. While about 2.2 million people in the United States have already been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, the National Stroke Association estimates that one-third of the country has the condition, but doesn’t know it. Here are key afib symptoms and afib risk factors to pay attention to:

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Your heart occasionally (or continuously) beats irregularly

Most patients describe the fluttering sensation of the heart characteristic of atrial fibrillation as too fast and uneven. While a healthy heart at rest will typically beat between 50 and 100 times a minute, the National Stroke Association reports that hearts afflicted with atrial fibrillation can sometimes reach an unwieldy pace of 450 beats a minute, though they can beat irregularly without speeding up, too. Episodes of chaotic or arrhythmic pulse behavior can be especially prevalent during stress or fatigue, after smoking or after too much caffeine, alcohol, or exercise. These lifesaving tips from a cardiologist can prevent heart disease.

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You have chest pain, and feel lightheaded or fatigued

The physical symptoms of atrial fibrillation that accompany a racing heart are very similar to symptoms of a heart attack, but typically without any nausea, vomiting, sweating, or coughing. According to Healthline, people with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation can experience exhaustion and chest pain for any time period between several minutes and several hours, while those with a chronic version might experience them all the time. Here’s what everyone should know about a heart attack before you have one.

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You’re older than 60

Noel Gerard Boyle, MD, a cardiologist at UCLA Medical Center, points out that sometimes people suffering from atrial fibrillation won’t experience any physical symptoms at all. For this reason, doctors who treat patients over the age of 60 tend to check for irregularities in pulse, or to teach patients to do so themselves. As is the case with other heart conditions, as age increases, the risk of atrial fibrillation does, too. “In the 50s, it’s about 1 percent,” said Boyle. “In the 60s about 2 percent, in the 70s about 3 to 5 percent, in the 80s 5 to 10 percent.” However, atrial fibrillation can also occur in younger people, and some experts even say it’s becoming more prevalent in teenagers and people in their 20s.

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You already have heart disease

While the cause of atrial fibrillation is still not completely clear, it’s likely that the same problems associated with heart disease, including coronary heart disease, heart failure, congenital heart disease, and heart attack, also contribute to atrial fibrillation’s onset. Therefore, if you’re already diagnosed with a form of heart disease, it’s important to check your pulse with a doctor, especially if you’ve recently undergone cardiovascular surgery. According to WebMD, atrial fibrillation is the most common complication after heart surgery, and will occur in two or three out of every 10 people recovering. These are healthy-heart tips cardiologists follow themselves.

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You already have obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a common disorder in which airway blockages during sleep starve sufferers of oxygen, causing them to abruptly wake up. According to the Heart Rhythm Society, about half of atrial fibrillation patients also have obstructive sleep apnea, marking a distinctly high correlation between the two conditions. Moreover, people with obstructive sleep apnea have four times the risk of developing atrial fibrillation, most likely because the shallow breathing and ensuing lack of oxygen that occur with sleep apnea can trigger arrhythmias during sleep. These are sleep apnea symptoms you might not realize you have.

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You already have high blood pressure

Hypertension and high blood pressure also compels the heart to overwork itself, which may contribute to prompting the disorganized electric signals in the heart characteristic of atrial fibrillation, according to the American Heart Association. Try to incorporate some of these natural remedies for high blood pressure into your lifestyle.

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You already have hyperthyroidism or diabetes

Doctors have noted a higher correlation between both hyperactive thyroids, type 2 diabetes, and atrial fibrillation, though they’re still searching for a complete understanding. According to a 2009 study published in Thyroid Research Journal, atrial fibrillation is almost four times as likely to occur in people with hyperthyroidism than people in the general population, perhaps because a hyperactive thyroid may cause the scattered heart signals characteristic of atrial fibrillation. As for type 2 diabetes, a 2010 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showed that people receiving treatment for diabetes had a 40 percent higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation than people without diabetes. Scientists say it may be that diabetes causes neural restructuring or enlargement of one of the heart’s chambers, which contribute to disorganized electric signaling in the heart. These are thyroid disease symptoms you should never ignore, and signs you could have diabetes without realizing it.

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You have a family history of atrial fibrillation

Recent research shows that 30 percent of atrial fibrillation patients can track previous cases in their families, possibly unveiling a genetic cause to the condition, according to Mayo Clinic.

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You’ve recently experienced a stroke or a form of heart failure

The most pressing reason to get treatment for atrial fibrillation is its potential to eventually cause a stroke or heart failure. In fact, patients with atrial fibrillation are at five times the risk of a stroke, according to the National Stroke Association. In some cases in which other symptoms don’t show, a stroke or a form of heart failure will be the first indicator of atrial fibrillation. If you’ve recently suffered from either, talk to your doctor about atrial fibrillation, and seek treatment to prevent more heart problems in the future.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest