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Jill and Steve Douglas, East Troy, WI 

“I really appreciate all the information on your website as it allows me to be a better informed patient and to know what questions to ask my EP. 

Faye Spencer, Boise, ID, April 2017

“I think your site has helped a lot of patients.”

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Baltimore, MD

Doctors & patients are saying about 'Beat Your A-Fib'...

"If I had [your book] 10 years ago, it would have saved me 8 years of hell.”

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"This book is incredibly complete and easy-to-understand for anybody. I certainly recommend it for patients who want to know more about atrial fibrillation than what they will learn from doctors...."

Pierre Jaïs, M.D. Professor of Cardiology, Haut-Lévêque Hospital, Bordeaux, France

"Dear Steve, I saw a patient this morning with your book [in hand] and highlights throughout. She loves it and finds it very useful to help her in dealing with atrial fibrillation."

Dr. Wilber Su,
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"Within the pages of Beat Your A-Fib, Dr. Steve Ryan, PhD, provides a comprehensive guide for persons seeking to find a cure for their Atrial Fibrillation."

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Holter monitor

FAQs Coping With Your A-Fib Day-to-Day Issues

FAQs A-Fib afibFAQs 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.)

1.  Specialist: I like my cardiologist, but he has not talked about me seeing an Electrophysiologist [heart rhythm specialist]. Should I ask for a second opinion?”

2.  Forewarning? Is there any way to predict when I’m going to have an A-Fib attack?”

3.  Exercise: Can I damage my heart if I exercise in A-Fib? Should I exercise when in A-Fib or skip it and rest?”

4.  Progression of A-Fib: How long do I have before my A-Fib goes 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.  A-Flutter:They want to do an Atrial Flutter-only ablation, will that help if I possibly have A-Fib as well?”

6.  Medical Marijuana:Is smoking medical marijuana or using Marinol going to trigger or cause A-Fib? Will it help my A-Fib?

7.  Action Plan: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.”

Related Question:When my husband has an Atrial Fibrillation episode, what can I do for him? How can I be supportive?”

Related Question:In case I have a stroke, what does my family need to know to help me? (I’m already on a blood thinner.)  What can I do to improve my odds of surviving it?”

8.  PVC/PACs: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.  DIY Monitors: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?”

Related Question: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?”

10.  Heart Rate: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.”

Related Question:My doctor says I need a pacemaker because my heart rate is too slow. I’m an athlete with A-Fib and have a naturally slow heart rate.”

11.  Circulation:Is there any way I can improve my circulation? I feel tired and a little light-headed, probably because my atria aren’t pumping properly. Is there a way without having to undergo an Ablation or Surgery? I am in Chronic A-Fib. ”

Updated/Related Question: “I’ve heard about an out-patient heart therapy that improves circulation called EECP (Enhanced External Counterpulsation). Would it help me with my A-Fib?”

12.  Hereditary A-Fib: Both my uncles and my Dad have Atrial Fibrillation. I’m worried. How can I avoid developing A-Fib? Can dietary changes help? Or lifestyle changes?”

13. Treatment choices: “How do I know which is the best A-Fib treatment option for me?”

Related Question:In one of your articles it said that having an ablation was better than living in A-Fib. If your article means all types of A-Fib [including Paroxysmal], then I will consider an ablation.”

If you find any errors on this page, email us. Y Last updated: Monday, June 18, 2018
Return to Frequently Asked Questions

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Diagnostic Tests

Diagnostic Tests for Atrial Fibrillation -, A-fib, afib, a fib

Diagnostic Tests for Atrial Fibrillation

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

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: EKG of heart in A-Fib

VIDEO 1:  EKG of Heart in Atrial Fibrillation

Graphic display of actual heart in Atrial Fibrillation. How it could look to your doctor on an EKG/ECG monitor; (Your EKG may look different, but will be fast and erratic). Includes display of the changing heartbeat rate in the lower left. Go to video->

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.

 Holter and Event Monitors

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.

Holter Monitors

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.

Event Monitors

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: Zio Patch in use.

VIDEO 2: The Zio® Patch (iRhythm): Single-Use Ambulatory Cardiac Monitor

Updated 2-07-2018: The Zio® Patch cardiac monitor (iRhythm) looks similar to a 2-by-5-inch adhesive bandage and sticks to a patient’s chest. Learn about this single-use ambulatory, continuously cardiac monitor that records for up to 14 days with no need to removal during exercise, sleeping or bathing. (2:04 min.) Go to video->

Implantable Monitors

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.

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 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. 

 Tilt-Table Test

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: Patient introduction to the tilt table test. New York Cardiovascular Associates website,

VIDEO 3: The tilt table test.

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. Go to video->

 Electrophysiology Study

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.

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 Imaging Technologies

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 Echocardiology, TEE - Atrial Fibrillation test, A-fib, afib, a fib

Screen image: TEE

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)

Order your copy TODAY!

‘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).

Chest X-Ray

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.

 Additional Readings

• Sleep Apnea: Home Testing Now Available
• A Primer: Ambulatory Heart Rhythm Monitors
• Consumer (DIY) Heart Rate Monitors
• Understanding the EKG Signal
• The CHADS2 Stroke-Risk Grading System

Last updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2018

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Return to Treatments for Atrial Fibrillation

A Primer: Ambulatory Heart Rhythm Monitors

A Primer: Ambulatory/Long-term Heart Rhythm Monitors

By Steve S. Ryan, PhD

ECG pads positioned

Source: patient education brochure

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

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

Mortara H12+ Continuous 12-lead Holter recorder

Mortora H12+ Continuous 12-lead Holter recorder

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

Cardionet wireless event monitor

Cardionet wireless 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

Medtronic Reveal® DX insertable cardiac monitor (ICM) continuously monitors

Medtronic Reveal® DX insertable cardiac monitor (ICM) continuously 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

CardioNet MCOTos Event wireless event monitor

CardioNet MCOTos Event wireless event monitor

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

Steve wearing a Zio Patch

Steve wearing a 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.

Additional Reading

For a scholarly review of medical heart rate monitors, see: New Methodologies in Arrhythmia Monitoring by Anderson & Donnelly.

References for this article
Diagnosing Heart Disease: Ambulatory ECG, Cardionetics, Cardiac Intelligence. Last accessed, Sept 14, 2012.

Anderson, J, et al. New Methodlogies in Arrhythmia Monitoring, Touch Briefings 2008, European Cardiology, pp63-66.

Anderson, J., & Donnelly, N. New Methodologies in Arrhythmia Monitoring. Last accessed Nov 4, 2014. URL:

Posted: March 2013

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Return to Index of Articles: Diagnostic Testing

Last updated: Thursday, September 3, 2015


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