Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) Symptoms

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2024

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a condition that affects the heart's rhythm. Your heart usually beats in a steady, coordinated rhythm, but in AFib, the heart's upper chambers (atria) quiver instead of contracting normally. They beat out of sync with the lower heart chambers (ventricles). This erratic heartbeat can lead to a range of symptoms.1

The exact cause of AFib is not entirely known and can be due to multiple risk factors. It could be the result of other heart conditions like coronary artery disease (CAD) or high blood pressure. AFib also is hereditary, meaning it can be passed down from family members who have AFib. At times, AFib occurs at random, with no known cause.2

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation

If you have AFib, your heart is not pumping blood as efficiently as it should. An irregular heartbeat affects blood flow and reduces the supply of oxygen to your body. This may lead to many troublesome symptoms.1-3

The most common symptoms of AFib include:1-3

  • Heart palpitations
  • Pounding or racing heartbeat
  • Unexplained tiredness or fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • A heartbeat that feels like a “fluttering” or “thumping” in the chest
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Weakness
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

Depending on the type of AFib you have, you may experience symptoms occasionally for a short time or consistently for a longer time.1-3

Types of atrial fibrillation

There are several types of atrial fibrillation. While symptoms do not differ much between them, the duration and severity of symptoms do. Types of AFib include:1,2

  • Paroxysmal AFib – Irregular heartbeats that come and go. These episodes can last minutes to hours and may stop on their own, making them unpredictable.
  • Persistent AFib – AFib that lasts for longer periods, such as a week. Unlike shorter paroxysmal AFib, this type requires treatment to return the heart to its normal rhythm.
  • Long-term persistent AFib – AFib that lasts for more than a year. This type may need a more comprehensive approach, combining medicine and procedures to restore the heart's regular beat.
  • Permanent AFib – AFib that does not go away, even after treatment. Management of this type usually focuses on symptom control and reducing the risk of complications.

How do AFib symptoms differ from those of heart attack and stroke?

AFib symptoms can be confused with those of a heart attack or stroke. But there are distinct differences.1,2

Heart attack symptoms often include severe chest pain, while AFib symptoms feel like irregular heartbeats and palpitations. Heart attack symptoms include:1,2

  • Chest pain or discomfort that may spread to the arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating, nausea, or lightheadedness

Stroke symptoms typically involve neurological problems, while AFib symptoms stem from an irregular heartbeat. Stroke symptoms can include:1,2

  • Sudden numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body
  • Confusion
  • Trouble speaking or slurred speech
  • Face drooping
  • Sudden and severe headache

If you notice that you or someone else has any of the above symptoms, call 911 right away.1,2

How are atrial fibrillation symptoms treated?

Treating atrial fibrillation involves managing symptoms and reducing the risk of complications. The choice of treatment depends on the type of AFib, its severity, and personal health factors – the overall goal is to improve quality of life.2,3

Treatment typically includes a combination of medicines to control the heart's rhythm and prevent blood clots. In some cases, cardioversion – a medical procedure that restores the heart's normal rhythm – may be needed. Catheter ablation, another possible procedure, involves targeting and disrupting electrical signals in the heart.2,3

For persistent and long-term persistent AFib, more extensive treatments like surgical ablation or a pacemaker may be considered.2,3

Lifestyle changes also play a crucial role in overall AFib management. Adopting habits such as reducing stress, eating a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise is important. Work closely with your healthcare team to determine the best treatment plan for you.2,3

When to seek medical help

If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, do not ignore them. Seek medical help. While AFib itself is not life-threatening, it can lead to complications like heart attack or stroke if left untreated. Contact your healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms and get appropriate tests if necessary.1-3

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Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.