If you have atrial fibrillation (AFib), you’re probably familiar with one of its most common symptoms—a rapid, irregular heartbeat. That’s a hallmark sign of this common heart rhythm disorder. Those episodes when your heartbeat doesn’t seem right aren’t necessarily dangerous when they occur, but AFib can also cause other symptoms throughout your body that can take a toll on your health.
When your heart beats normally, it contracts from top to bottom about 60 to 100 times per minute, sending blood smoothly from your heart to your lungs and your body. With AFib, this system goes awry. The contraction might not start in the correct part of the heart or might not flow from the top to the bottom. Your heart might not be able to manage extra electrical signals that develop. Your blood supply can become unpredictable. These are the factors that can affect your body and your health.
Shane Rowan, MD, an electrophysiologist with Banner Health, explained more about the effects of AFib and what you can do to minimize them.
1. Your heart and lungs
With AFib, the electrical signals that keep your heartbeat steady don’t work correctly. The amount of blood pumping out of your heart isn’t consistent. So, it makes sense that you would notice problems with your heart and blood vessels, such as:
- Heart palpitations. These can feel like a rapid, irregular heartbeat or like your heart is skipping a beat. You might also notice these changes in your pulse, which could be fast, slow or irregular.
- Shortness of breath. You may feel out of breath since fluid can build up in your lungs and make it harder for you to breathe.
- Heart failure. When you have AFib, your heart doesn’t pump the blood out to your body correctly. So, you can develop symptoms of heart failure, even though you may not feel these changes right away.
- Low blood pressure. The changes AFib causes can lead to unusual blood pressure readings.
2. Your brain
The changes in blood flow that stem from AFib can affect your brain:
- Stroke. The irregular heartbeat associated with AFib can cause blood to pool in the upper chambers of your heart. Since that blood isn’t moving, it’s more likely to clot. And a blood clot that travels through your blood vessels to your brain could cause a stroke.
- Dementia. Researchers have discovered a link between AFib and cognitive impairment and dementia. “I think the risk of dementia is surprising to most people,” Dr. Rowan said. “But taking blood thinners and undergoing a procedure to treat atrial fibrillation called catheter ablation may be effective in reducing this risk.”
3. Your body
The changes in blood flow from AFib can affect your body:
- Weakness. It’s common for people with AFib to feel tired and to notice they don’t have as much strength and stamina as they used to. It might be hard for you to exercise or do the activities you usually can do.
- Fluid buildup. You may notice that your legs, ankles or feet retain water or look swollen if you have AFib.
- Blood clots. Just as blood clots can reach the brain and cause stroke, they can also reach other parts of the body, though this is rare.
4. Your overall health
AFib can cause some symptoms that you might not associate with the condition:
- Fatigue. AFib can make you feel fatigued since your blood flow can be reduced throughout your body. Feeling like you have less energy than normal is something many people with AFib experience.
- Lightheadedness. Along with making you feel tired, the reduced blood flow can cause feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness.
How to treat AFib
If you have AFib, you’re not destined to experience these symptoms and side effects. “By treating AFib, you can reduce or eliminate most of these effects,” Dr. Rowan said.
Lifestyle changes can help. That can mean choosing a heart-healthy diet, including physical activity as part of your routine, maintaining healthy body weight, not smoking and minimizing alcohol. These changes can also reduce your risk of atherosclerotic heart disease and heart attack.
Treatment options for AFib include:
- Medications that can control your heart rate or rhythm and can help prevent blood clots.
- An electrical shock that can put the heart back into a normal rhythm.
- Minimally invasive surgery that carefully destroys the small area that’s causing the irregular electrical signal.
- Using a pacemaker to regulate the heartbeat.
- Open-heart surgery, called the maze procedure, that creates scar tissue that blocks the irregular electrical signals.
The bottom line
Atrial fibrillation can affect your body in a lot of different ways. You may notice symptoms in your heart, lungs, brain or legs, and you might experience whole-body concerns as well. But with proper treatment, you can minimize or eliminate the effects of AFib.
To speak with a cardiologist about treatment options for AFib, reach out to Banner Health.