- A-fib presents itself with a unique set of symptoms. Some have it and don't know it until their doctor tells them. Some are highly symptomatic when in a-fib. Some people, myself included, have symptoms that vary from mild to extreme.
- Better eating habits, getting more sleep and good quality sleep, and avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and cold medicines does seem to reduce the number and intensity of a-fib episodes.
So what does a-fib feel like?
I've been in the hospital twice now on an EKG machine with the doctor telling me I'm in a-fib. If they hadn't told me, I wouldn't have known. In both of these cases I was confined to bed and medicated heavily enough that my heart rate was controlled, so it stayed in a 'normal' range of less than 100 beats per minute. So sometimes it feels like nothing at all.
I should mention here that I almost constantly have something called PVC's, which are not a-fib but seem to go hand in hand with afib. These are benign (so the doctor says) but they can drive you absolutely insane until you get used to them. I have about 4000 a day, and have had them since 2005, so I guess I'm used to them for the most part now. If you ever took a CPR class, you may recall that you were told to count one & two & three & four & five... when performing CPR. Well, with PVCs imagine your heart beating along one & two & three......and then there's this pause, sometimes long enough that you feel like holding your breath to make sure you feel if your heart does beat again. And then along come four, but it isn't a normal beat. No, it is a super beat that slams so hard that sometimes you feel it is lifting you right out of the bed. If you are not extremely overweight, you can actually see that beat pop out of your chest sometimes. Needless to say, it makes relaxation a challenge.
By far the worst; however, is being here at home or in the hospital in what I call 'full-blown a-fib.' This typically occurs at night, sometimes before I go to sleep, other times waking me from a sound sleep. At first it feels like my heart is playing on the monkey bars. Remember that bar you hold on to and the flip around? Well, it feels like my heart is doing pull ups on that bar, and then every few beats it decides to turn a flip - whee! Except it isn't as thrilling to have my heart do that inside my chest as it is to have my body turn that flip. Eventually that flip changes to an irregular heart rhythm. No more one & two & three. It's like a drunken sailor is staggering around inside my chest.
Except that no drunken sailor could stagger so fast. When it really winds up, my actual pulse rate will soar up over 100 beats per minute. At about 180, I get shortness of breath and lightheaded. I use some basic breathing exercises to bring my rate down to where I can breathe again. But then it pops back up again, so time for more breathing exercises. Repeat, over and over again, until either the rate stabilizes at a low enough point that I can go to sleep; or I convert back to normal rhythm; or I decide it's time for a trip to the ER. Trips to the ER are thankfully rare, and I'll talk about why in a future post.
Oh, and once I hit that magical rate of 180 or so, another symptom develops. Some of my friends call it the 'big pee.' Yes, just at the time that my body needs me to be still and relax to lower my heart rate -- I start wearing a trail in the floor going back and forth to the little girl's room. If I hit that point, I know it's a really bad a-fib episode and I'm going to feel like h*&% the next day. Kind of like I feel right now.
The next day, my blood pressure is typically low. So I'm too tired to do anything more strenuous than operate the DVR. Sometimes I even watch the commercials because the effort to fast forward just isn't worth it. I have to psyche myself up to stand in the shower for five minutes. Trips up the single flight of stairs in our house require a break in the middle. I often get so lightheaded that I have to elevate my feet to clear the rushing in my head.
Sometimes after an a-fib episode, if I try to do normal type activities, I have a near-faint, which is an awful feeling. If you haven't had a near-faint before, for me it goes like this. First, my head starts feeling extremely full. I get very warm and slightly nauseous. Sometimes if I can get to a sitting position fast enough, it ends there. If not, then my vision starts narrowing. It's like someone is slowly covering my eyes from the outer perimeter inward, until I can only see a tiny little tunnel. And my lips get numb - yep, worse than the best Novocain the dentist can dish out. By this time my feet better be getting elevated above my heart, or I'm probably going all the way out. Lucky for me there's been someone around to help with the feet the two times it's gone this far.
So this is what it feels like to live with a-fib in my sample of one - me. Other describe different symptoms. Some choose to head to the ER at the first sign, others refuse to go to the ER at all. Well-intentioned doctors often tell us that we have anxiety we need to deal with (well duh, after what I've just described wouldn't you be a bit anxious?) or that it won't kill us, never mind the elevated stroke risk. They ignore the impact of feeling 70 when you're 45, the fear of the next episode that ruins your plans for the day, and medications that are sometimes worse than the disease.
So what are the options for an a-fib sufferer - that's up next.