I’m no longer afraid

Photo of a man hiking (PantherMedia / Klaus Neundorf)

Harvey, 71 years old

“I used to worry that my heart would just stop beating – I’d really panic. Nowadays I’m much calmer when I feel my heart fluttering. I know that it isn’t a life-threatening condition.”

I had atrial fibrillation for the first time about 20 years ago. It happened on holiday, while I was swimming. I thought I’d drown. I started panicking and was terrified I wouldn’t make it out of the water. But then my heart calmed down again.

When I got home, I went to see a doctor about it. He did an ECG when I was at rest, and then again when I was exercising. But that didn’t help us find out what caused my palpitations on holiday. We then monitored my heartbeat with a long-term ECG. The results were normal there, too.

But I kept getting the same symptoms at irregular intervals, and they seemed to get worse every time. At one point it was so bad that my wife and I called an ambulance. They told me that I had atrial fibrillation, and that it wasn’t anything bad. After about three days my heart started beating normally again. I could feel the difference.

It felt like a life-threatening problem

It used to scare me, and it felt like a life-threatening problem, so we often drove to the hospital. Once it was so bad that I was taken to the intensive care unit. They wanted to give me electric shocks to make my heart beat at a normal rhythm again. But I was worried and called my family doctor first to ask him what he thought, and about the risks. He said there was no reason not to do it. I was then given a general anesthetic, so I didn’t notice a thing during the procedure. And my heartbeat was back to a normal rhythm after that. But that didn’t last long. It started fluttering again about four weeks later.

My family doctor put me on medication

My doctor prescribed various medications: To prevent a stroke or heart attack, I take Aspirin to stop my blood clotting. Unlike many other people, I don’t take Marcumar. I take medication for my high blood pressure too, which I have had for about 35 years now. Then I also take another drug for high cholesterol, to prevent heart attacks. Every now and again my stomach protests and I get heartburn, but then I take an antacid and that helps. I took digoxin for a while. But then at one point I read the package insert and, after weighing the pros and cons and talking to my family doctor about it, I decided to stop taking it again.

Doctors can destroy tissue in your heart to stop the atrial fibrillation (editorial note: “ablation”). I thought about doing that, but decided not to in the end because it’s associated with risks.

I can feel my heartbeat in my neck

A friend of mine found out by chance that he had atrial fibrillation. He hadn’t noticed anything. I can always tell straight away when my heart starts beating irregularly. It usually starts in the middle of the night. I can feel my heartbeat in my neck. And I can feel it pounding away really strongly in my chest. Nowadays I find it easy to tell whether my heartbeat is normal or irregular. I also feel it racing. But it doesn’t hurt. It sometimes seems like I have to go to the toilet more often when I have atrial fibrillation. That’s strange, but I’ve read that it’s quite common.

I now have an idea of what might trigger my atrial fibrillation. I usually get it around midnight. I think that red wine combined with coffee or stress might trigger it later on in the night (editorial note: There is no scientific evidence that alcohol, caffeine or stress can cause atrial fibrillation). I now avoid red wine and espresso, and I try to reduce my stress levels. I personally find it important to take magnesium and potassium regularly, and have my doctor check my levels.

I always have my tablets with me in case the atrial fibrillation starts up again. I have learned to deal with it over time. My heart has been doing okay recently.

I’m not afraid of physical exercise, it does me good

Physical exercise does me good. Getting movement makes me feel good. But I don’t do any strenuous activities when I have atrial fibrillation. I’m not scared of physical activity triggering it, though. I carry on as usual. I go hiking in the mountains, lift heavy objects, and use my exercise bike. I sometimes feel pretty exhausted in the evenings.

It was really important to me to find out as much as I could about my condition. For instance: What actually happens in my heart when it flutters? What does my heart need, and how does it work? I then knew what was going on when it happened.

I’m no longer afraid of atrial fibrillation. I just find it unpleasant. My first episode of atrial fibrillation was a life-changing experience for me. I was in my early fifties, I’ll never forget it. I used to worry that my heart would just stop beating – I’d really panic. Nowadays I’m much calmer when I feel my heart fluttering. I know that it isn’t a life-threatening condition.


Acknowledgment

Our real-life stories summarize interviews with people who are affected by the medical condition. Our interview partners have given us permission to publish their stories. We would like to express our sincere thanks to them.

The real-life stories give an insight into how other people cope and live with a medical condition. Their opinions and comments are not recommendations by IQWiG.

Please note: The names of our interview partners have been changed to protect their identity. The photos are of models.