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What is Atrial Fibrillation and How to Know if I Have AFib?

Posted by FitTrack Australia on

Key Takeaways

  • Atrial fibrillation (known as AFib) is a type of cardiac arrhythmia affecting around 500,000 Australians
  • It occurs when the heart's upper and lower chambers beat out of rhythm, resulting in poor blood flow and at times, clotting
  • Symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, tiredness, weakness, chest pain and fainting
  • When properly treated, AFib is not usually life threatening, and there are a variety of ways to monitor it from home

Do you suffer from a form of cardiovascular disease? Millions of people each day are affected by conditions that impact their heart and blood vessels in some way - often leading to stroke, high blood pressure, kidney disease, impaired blood supply to the legs and other related disorders. Among many others, atrial fibrillation (also called AF or AFib) is one of the most common forms of cardiovascular disease affecting Australians today, and the most common type of heart rhythm disorder. In fact, studies show that around half a million Aussies are currently living with AFib - that’s equivalent to 2% of the population in 2020! It is also estimated that one in three people are at risk of developing AFib in their lifetime. So what is atrial fibrillation?

Table of Contents

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia - a fault in the heart’s electrical system that causes an irregular pumping rhythm. In AFib, the heart’s own pacemaker becomes overwhelmed by abnormal functioning between its top two chambers (atria) and its lower two chambers (ventricles). When the atria and ventricles twitch out of rhythm to each other, blood does not flow properly inside the heart. This can cause blood clots, which in turn can lead to stroke and heart failure. When properly treated however, atrial fibrillation is not usually life threatening.

Video from Heart Foundation

Atrial fibrillation can be separated into three categories:

  • paroxysmal
  • persistent
  • chronic, or permanent

Paroxysmal AFib, or “intermittent AFib,” are episodes of atrial fibrillation that stop and start spontaneously, often suddenly. These occurrences can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours, or even a few days before stopping and allowing the heart to return to its normal rhythm. Due to its unpredictable behavior, Paroxysmal AFib can be difficult to identify.

Persistent AFib is defined as AFib that persists for more than seven days, or that has required a medical procedure (cardioversion by medications or electric shock treatment) for termination of the rhythm. This type of AFib does not stop on its own.

Chronic, or permanent AFib is that which has been ongoing for many years. Chronic AFib often cannot be resolved by cardioversion treatments. In this situation, long-term medication may be used to help control heart rhythm and symptoms, and lower the odds of a stroke occurring.

Research has shown that up to 30% of all cases of paroxysmal AFib progress into persistent or more chronic AFib after one year. If atrial fibrillation is found early, treatment may be easier and more effective. So, how do I know if I have AFib?

How do I Know if I am at Risk of Atrial Fibrillation?

The risk of having AFib increases with age. An estimated 1 in 20 Australians over the age of 55 have some kind of AFib. It is also the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia in athletes, with middle aged athletes being most at risk. Whilst younger people are considered low risk for developing AFib, they are more likely to have paroxysmal AFib than any other type.

Other conditions and lifestyles can put a person at greater risk of acquiring atrial fibrillation. These include:

  • Underlying heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney, lung or thyroid disease
  • Obesity
  • Inactivity
  • Sleep apnoea
  • Diabetes
  • Lifestyle of excessive alcohol consumption 
  • Lifestyle of smoking
  • Family history of atrial fibrillation

Although some factors are beyond our ability to change - such as age and family history, other factors can be monitored and minimized. To do this, it’s important to know what can cause atrial fibrillation or a sudden episode of it.

What Can Trigger Atrial Fibrillation?

Realizing what triggers atrial fibrillation can be very helpful to those who experience intermittent episodes of AFib. Like any medical condition, when the triggers of AFib are avoided, the entire management process becomes easier and more effective!

Atrial fibrillation triggers can include:

  • Alcohol consumption, particularly binge drinking
  • Smoking
  • Salty foods
  • Drinking high amounts of caffeine - including coffee, tea and energy drinks
  • Illegal drug use
  • Hormone changes and imbalances
  • Medications
  • Sleep apnea or lack of sleep

Sleep apnoea is one of the many triggers of Atrial fibrillation

It’s good to remember that when it comes to triggers for atrial fibrillation, every person is different. People suffering from any form of cardiac arrhythmia should get to know what makes their own arrhythmias worse in order to avoid those things. Consultation with a doctor can help people identify what triggers paroxysmal AFib for them.

What are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation symptoms differ from person to person. Some encounter no symptoms at all, while others experience daily or severe symptoms. For most people it begins with a skipped heartbeat followed by a “thudding” sensation in the chest. Other signs and symptoms of AFib may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Racing or irregular heartbeat
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Chest pain or discomfort 
  • Fainting

Chest pain and discomfort can be one sign that you are suffering from Atrial fibrillation

People with AFib can have one or multiple symptoms. If experiencing these symptoms for the first time, urgent medical attention is needed - as these warning signs are similar to those of other cardiac problems such as a heart attack. For sufferers of chronic AFib, some of these symptoms may be a frequent occurrence. In this case, any change in their type or severity should be followed up by a doctor. But what if you only have one or none of the above symptoms? Is there a smartwatch that can check for arrhythmias? Or how can you check if the cause of your tiredness is actually AFib?

How Can I Monitor Atrial Fibrillation at Home?

These days, it is easier than ever to keep an eye on AFib from home - and it’s all thanks to innovations in electrocardiogram (ECG) technology! Countless people are readily using smartwatches and other devices capable of ECG to detect and track atrial fibrillation symptoms. You may wonder though, can a home health device really provide accurate electrocardiogram readings?

Amazingly, they can! Medical professionals all over the world are supporting the use of wearable and at home ECG devices. In a way, they are even better able to detect signs of Atrial fibrillation when symptoms are intermittent. Wellness technology engineer Dr Conor Heneghan noted: "Afib can come and go, as can conditions that affect the rhythm of your heart. That means having a device that can take spot readings at any time, makes it a hugely powerful health tool to have at your disposal.” Yes, instead of relying on sheer chance that paroxysmal AFib will show up at the next checkup appointment, patients can conveniently monitor and record their heart behavior closely, 24/7.

Withings ScanWatch - Hybrid Smartwatch

The Withings TGA approved ScanWatch boasts a medical-grade ECG, an oximeter for SpO2 measures, and an exceptional battery life of up to 30 days.

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What to Look For in an ECG Capable Smartwatch or Wireless ECG Device?

Always make sure to look for a device that is medical grade, clinically tested and TGA approved or FDA registered. This gives peace of mind that the results that are presented will be accurate - an important requirement when it comes to our health!

One of the highest rated ECG capable smartwatches is the Withings ScanWatch - the first hybrid smartwatch to scan vital parameters to detect heart health conditions. Its medical grade electrocardiogram was developed with professionals from world renowned institutions and produces a reading in 30 seconds!

Another quality device is the World #1, TGA approved and clinically validated Withings BPM Core, capable of recording blood pressure, electrocardiogram and blood pressure all in one. Made alongside cardiologists themselves, the BPM Core’s three electrodes record a medical grade ECG, providing the user with accurate personal health data at their fingertips.

Withings BPM Core

The BPM Core delivers accurate blood pressure and heart rate, as well as ECG monitoring and a digital stethoscope. Now an at-home device can point to a risk of serious conditions, including atrial fibrillation (AFib).

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