It’s a commonplace for people to say they’re experiencing heart palpitations or discuss being out of breath. They’re common phrases used in everyday conversation, but some people when they experience symptoms like those, the experience can be incredibly jaw-dropping, if not extremely frightening.

By definition, Atrial Fibrillation is defined as an irregular, often rapid heart rate that commonly causes poor blood flow and requires immediate medical attention when signs or symptoms present themselves. The problem is, this condition may not have any outward symptoms at all.

However, when symptoms do appear they can include anything from heart palpitations (feeling like your heart is beating too hard or too fast or might be skipping a beat or fluttering), shortness of breath, tightening in the chest, and/or fatigue. The more extreme pain is typically concentrated in the chest area, but can also include dizziness, an inability to exercise, a dull pallor (change in skin color), weakness, lightheadedness, and confusion.

The most common or well-known symptom of Atrial Fibrillation is a fluttering (quivering) heartbeat. This is due to a misfiring of electrical impulses in the atria (the top chambers of the heart). When the heart quivers, that’s what’s commonly known as fibrillating. When those symptoms occur, most often they are accompanied by other symptoms. In any combination, the various symptoms together can require urgent medical care.

Atrial fibrillation may only happen occasionally with symptoms that come and go, and ultimately, stop on their own. Because they stop on their own, people often choose to ignore the seriousness of the issue. That makes it even more dangerous. The prevalence of this condition has grown greatly over the last several decades. Approximately 11% of people over the age of eighty are affected by Atrial fibrillation. It is far more common in adults as they age.

In additional to the risks presented by the aging population, the ability of the symptoms to be masked makes it more difficult to diagnose and, in many cases, goes undiagnosed until they’ve had another health scare like strokes, heart failure, diabetes, hypertension, and blood clots. But despite the large percentage of older people who suffer from Atrial Fibrillation, teens and young adults can also suffer from symptoms. As with older adults, it can be single experiences or isolated events or won’t be diagnosed until there have been repeated episodes or until they’ve been diagnosed with other conditions. Unlike older adults, it is very rare to be diagnosed during routine checkups or yearly physical exams. Younger patients are almost exclusively asymptomatic.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms, including chest pain, a feeling of a very rapid heart rate (greater than 100 beats per minute), or any of the above-mentioned signs and symptoms, speak to your doctor.

The only way to confirm whether what you’re experiencing is actual Atrial Fibrillation, is to visit your doctor as it can only be diagnosed via an electrocardiogram or other diagnostic cardiac rythm monitoring tests.

By Joaquin N Diego, MD, FCCP, FACC