FAQs Coping With Your Atrial Fibrillation: Day-to-Day Issues
Coping with your Atrial Fibrillation means a patient and their family have many and varied questions. Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about dealing with the day-to-day issues of having Atrial Fibrillation. (Click on the question to jump to the answer.)
2. “Is there any way to predict when I’m going to have an A-Fib attack?”
3. “Should I exercise when in A-Fib or skip it and rest? Can I damage my heart if I exercise in A-Fib?”
4. “How long do I have before I go into chronic or permanent A-Fib? I know it’s harder to cure. My A-Fib episodes seem to be getting longer and more frequent.”
5. “They want to do an Atrial Flutter-only ablation, will that help if I possibly have A-Fib as well?”
6. “Is smoking medical marijuana or using Marinol going to trigger or cause A-Fib? Will it help my A-Fib?
7. “During an A-Fib episode, when should I call paramedics (911 in the US) and/or take my husband to the hospital? I’m petrified. I need a plan.”
8. “I have a lot of extra beats and palpitations (PVCs or PACs) They seem to proceed an A-Fib attack. What can or should I do about them?”
9. “How do I know which is the best A-Fib treatment option for me?”
10. “When my husband has an Atrial Fibrillation episode, what can I do for him? How can I be supportive?”
11. “How can I tell when I’m in A-Fib or just having something like indigestion?”
12. “What kind of monitors are available for atrial fibrillation? Is there any way to tell how often I get A-Fib or how long the episodes last?”
13. “I’m an athlete with A-Fib and have a naturally slow heart rate. My doctor says I need a pacemaker because my heart rate is too slow.”
14. “Can excess iron in the blood cause Atrial Fibrillation? How do I know? If I have Iron Overload Deficiency (IOD), what can I do about it?”
15. “Can too little iron in the blood (Anemia) cause Atrial Fibrillation? What can I do about iron deficiency?”
16. “Is it possible to have a single A-Fib attack and not have any others? I had a single episode of A-Fib and was successfully converted in the ER with meds.”
17. “My mom is 94 with A-Fib. Are there consumer heart rate monitors she can wear to alert me at work if her heart rate exceeds a certain number?”
18. “Can I have A-Fib when my heart rate stays between 50-60 BPM? My doctor tells me I have A-Fib, but I don’t always have a rapid heart rate.”
19. “I’m in Chronic A-Fib. Can I improve my circulation, without having to undergo a Catheter Ablation or Surgery?”
20. “In one of your articles it said that having an ablation was better than living in A-Fib. I’ve been taking 75 mg of propafenone 3X/day for seven years and have only had 5 A-Fib attacks in 7 years. If your article means all types of A-Fib [including Paroxysmal], then I will consider an ablation.”
21. “Both my uncles and my Dad have Atrial Fibrillation. I’m 50 years old and so far I don’t have A-Fib (yet), but I’m worried. How can I avoid developing A-Fib? Can dietary changes help? Or lifestyle changes?”
Last updated: Sunday, March 27, 2016
Return to Frequently Asked Questions
12. “Is there any way to tell how often I get A-Fib or how long the episodes last? What kind of A-Fib monitors are available? I have silent A-Fib (A-Fib without any obvious symptoms). It was discovered by accident when I was getting an EKG during a physical.”
Your doctor may use a Holter or an Event Monitor. A Holter Monitor records your EKG continuously, usually for 24 hours; an Event Monitor can be used for up to 30 days or longer. For a more in depth discussion about Holter and Event monitors, see my report A Primer: Ambulatory Heart Rhythm Monitors.
To monitor for A-Fib yourself, try a consumer, or DIY, sports heart rate monitor available from sporting goods stores. Used by runners and other athletes, they rely on the use of a chest strap to pick up the electrical signals from the heart and transmit to a special wrist watch.
On most you can program a high heart rate zone which you might enter only if you were in A-Fib. That way you could record when and how long you stayed in A-Fib and what your max heart rate was. Some have internal storage recording that can be download to your PC to view data in a graphic form.
We like the “Polar” brand. Check out the array of Polar brand heart rate monitors on Amazon.com. Other companies include Timex, Garmin, Acumen, Nike, and Cardiosport.
Diagnostic Tests for Atrial Fibrillation
Doctors have several technologies and diagnostic tests to aid them in evaluating your A-Fib. Your doctor will likely make use of several from this list.
Blood tests check the level of thyroid hormone, the balance of your body’s electrolytes (i.e., potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, etc.), look for signs of infection, measure blood oxygen levels and hormone levels, and other possible indicators of an underlying cause of Atrial Fibrillation.Blood tests can also reveal whether a patient has anemia or problems with kidney function, which could complicate Atrial Fibrillation.
An Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) is a simple, painless test that uses up to twelve sensors attached to your body to create a graphical representation of the electrical activity of your heart. The standard ECG records for only a few seconds. It can only detect an A-Fib episode if it happens during the test. For a longer period of time, a portable ECG monitor is used.
VIDEO 1: Watch a real-time EKG display of a heart in Atrial Fibrillation. (:30) (Hint: Turn down the music track.) Look for the rapid, but irregular tracing. Uploaded on Apr 19, 2009. By HeartStart Skills Frasco.
NOTE: For an in depth explanation of the ECG/EKG waveform signal and how to “read” an ECG tracing, see my report Understanding the EKG Signal.
Those with occasional A-Fib (Paroxysmal) may not experience an A-Fib episode during your ECG. So, doctors have other means of capturing your A-Fib data.
A Holter Monitor is a small, portable recorder that’s clipped to a belt, kept in a pocket, or hung around your neck and worn during your normal daily activities. The leads from the Holter Monitor attach to your body like the sensors of an ECG. The Holter Monitor records your heart’s electrical activity for a full 24–48 hour period in hopes of capturing data during an A-Fib attack.
An Event Monitor is similar to a Holter Monitor, but records data only when activated by the patient. Pressing a button saves several minutes of data preceding and several minutes afterward. Some event monitors start automatically when they sense abnormal heart rhythms. You might wear an event monitor for one to two months.
VIDEO 2: The “Band-aid” Cardiac Monitor. Instead of a bulky holter monitor, the Zio® Patch cardiac monitor looks similar to a 2-by-5-inch adhesive bandage and sticks to a patient’s chest. Steven Higgins, MD, talks about this single-use ambulatory cardiac monitor; the device can continuously monitor your heart rhythm for up to 14 days without the need for removal during exercise, sleeping or bathing. From a May 2012 TV news story. (1:52 min.)
An Implantable Monitor is a type of event monitor without wires that’s inserted under the skin through a small incision. It’s used for patients with infrequent, unexplained fainting or passing-out when other tests have not found the cause. The implantable monitor is used for up to a year or more.
NOTE: For an in depth look at ECG monitors (including DIY/consumer heart rate monitors), see my report A Primer: Ambulatory Heart Rhythm Monitors.
Exercise Stress Test
During a stress test, you walk (or jog) on a treadmill while an ECG records your heart’s activity. This is often combined with an echocardiogram before and after the stress test to view and measure heart functions.
When the cause of dizziness, fainting or light-headedness isn’t detected by ECG or the Holter/event monitor, a tilt-table test may be performed. The table tilts the patient upright at a 70–80 degree angle for 30–45 minutes. As you are moved from a horizontal to an upright position, your blood pressure, heart rate and heart rhythm are monitored.
VIDEO 3: Tilt table test: Patient introduction to the tilt table test. Description of the test as we see a technician take a patient through a tilt table test. (1:15) Video posted on the New York Cardiovascular Associates website.
An electrophysiology study is a special catheterization test to examine the electrical activity inside your heart. It’s used to determine if and why the rhythm is abnormal. An electrophysiologist (EP) inserts several electrode catheters through the veins in your groin. Real-time images or moving X-rays (fluoroscopy) help guide the catheters into the heart. Once in place, the EP uses the catheters (and perhaps arrhythmia drugs) to artificially stimulate your arrhythmia. By recording data from strategic locations within the heart, most kinds of cardiac arrhythmias can be fully documented.
Echocardiography (Cardiac Ultrasound)
An Echocardiograph uses ultrasound waves to create a moving picture of your heart. As special sound waves are bounced off the structures of your heart, a computer converts them into pictures. These images show the size and shape of your heart and how well your heart chambers and valves are working. Your cardiologist can locate areas of poor blood flow and previous damage, and areas that are fibrillating or not contracting properly as well as identify and measure deformations of heart chambers and thickening of heart walls.
Transesophageal Echocardiography (TEE)
In this test, a tube with an ultrasound device is passed down through your esophagus. A clear image is captured of the heart muscle and other parts of the heart. As ultrasound waves are directed into the heart, the reflected sound waves are converted into pictures. The TEE is often administered just before an ablation to look for blood clots in your atria. If blood clots are found, anticoagulants are prescribed to dissolve them.
Computerized Tomography (CT) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
‘Cardiac CT’ uses an X-ray machine and a computer for detailed images of the heart and to make three-dimensional (3D) pictures of your heart and chest. The electrophysiologist uses them to perform catheter ablations inside the heart. A ‘cardiac MRI’ uses radio waves, magnets and a computer to create snapshots and video of your beating heart and can measure the amount of fibrosis (which can be a factor in A-Fib).
X-ray images help your doctor see the condition of your lungs and heart such as fluid buildup in the lungs, an enlarged heart, and other complications of A-Fib.
There are several tests your doctor may use to evaluate your A-Fib. A basic understanding of these tests helps you ask informed questions and discuss test results.
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By Steve S. Ryan, PhD
If your arrhythmia is intermittent, your doctor may have you wear a mobile type of heart rhythm monitor to capture the electrical activity of your heart. As a general rule, in order to make a diagnosis of an arrhythmia, some form of electrocardiographic recording (i.e., EKG,) must be made at the time the arrhythmia is occurring.
If an arrhythmia becomes persistent and is present day-in and day-out, as often is the case for A-Fib, the diagnosis is quite easy with a routine EKG done in the physician’s office.
The challenge is when an arrhythmia occurs intermittently (on and off) or is self-limiting. In this case, an EKG performed in between A-Fib episodes can be completely normal. To circumvent this problem, one would go to the next level of evaluation with a long-term monitor.
Long-term monitors basically are EKG recorders that patients can take with them (ambulatory). They fall into two major categories: continuous recording (Holter) and intermittent recording (Event).
The Holter Monitor
A Holter Monitor (named after Dr. Norman Holter, go figure) records continuously the EKG of a patient, usually for 24 – 48 hours. More modern Holter units record onto digital flash memory devices. The data are uploaded into a computer where software analyzes the input, counting ECG complexes, calculating summary statistics such as average heart rate, minimum and maximum heart rate, and finding candidate areas in the recording worthy of further study.
The advantage of a Holter is that every single heartbeat during that day is recorded and can be analyzed. The disadvantage is that if an arrhythmia did not happen on that particular day, the Holter data would not be useful.
The Event Monitor
An Event Monitor, on the other hand, is a long-term monitor that can be used for up to 30 days or longer. The advantage is that the longer the recording period, the better chance of “catching” an intermittent arrhythmia. The disadvantage is that an Event Monitor must be activated by the patient and downloaded telephonically, a task that requires a certain amount of manual dexterity and may be difficult for some patients.
Some event monitors are patient activated when having an episode and save the last several minutes of data; others detect the irregular heart rate and automatically record the data.
Number of Electrodes
The number and position of electrodes varies by model, but most Holter monitors employ between three and eight, whereas the Event Monitors typically use two. Both the Holter and Event monitors record electrical signals from the heart via a series of electrodes attached to the chest. The Loop (event) monitor is not attached to the patient but is instead pressed to the chest by the patient when experiencing an A-Fib episode.
Implantable ambulatory event monitors
Implantable event monitors are also available for those instances where individuals experience such infrequent symptoms that extended monitoring is needed.
These devices are inserted just under the skin in the chest area during an outpatient surgical procedure. The device may remain implanted for over one year.
Implantable loop recorders have the ability to record events either automatically (auto activated) or by manual activation (self-activated).
Real Time Remote Cardiac Recording
An example of the newer monitoring technologies is the Ambulatory Cardiac Telemetry (ACT), a wireless cardiac telemetry system. This event monitor is designed for remote arrhythmia monitoring in any location.
A small transmitter worn on the patient sends the ECG data to a portable handheld device where it is analyzed. If an arrhythmia is identified, the data is automatically transmitted to a Monitoring Center for immediate review. Integrated into a state-of-the-art mobile phone, the ACT provides next generation cardiac arrhythmia monitoring. What’s interesting is the transmitter is a dongle type device worn around the neck with leads placed on the chest. You carry or have available what, in essence, is a mobile phone (it’s actually more than a phone). It is small and not cumbersome.
No patient input is required. Data collected from the monitors is transmitted to the monitoring center via a cellular network, the internet, or over the phone (based on model). Data from the monitors is not intended to be used directly by the patient but rather by the monitoring center and your cardiologist.
Next-Generation: the ‘Smart Band-Aid’ Zio Patch
The ‘Smart Band-Aid’ provides the next-generation ambulatory cardiac monitoring service with beat-to-beat, real time analysis, automatic arrhythmia detection and wireless ECG transmission.
The sensors in the Band-Aid can be modified to monitor a number of different tasks as they can also provide a comprehensive suite of post-symptom, looping, and auto trigger event monitors as part of its turn-key cardiac event monitoring service.
Last updated: Thursday, September 3, 2015