I’m trying to get fitter again
Heather, 54 years old
“It felt like a herd of horses was stampeding through my body. It didn’t hurt, but I felt really anxious.”
The first time I had atrial fibrillation was in 2004. I came home from work and didn’t feel well. I lay down, and suddenly my heart started to flutter. I wondered what the heck was going on. Then I thought it would probably stop soon, but it didn’t.
I was caring for my mother at the time, and the nurse who used to come over to help out was there, and she said I should probably go to the doctor. The doctor did an ECG and told me that I had atrial fibrillation.
He gave me medicine and sent me home, saying that I should come back if it hadn’t stopped by the next day. But it did go away on its own after about twelve hours.
I started getting it more regularly
Things went well for a while after that. But then it started again. It always lasts about twelve hours. For two or three years I got it about twice a year, then about four times a year. It often happened on holiday, after swimming or hiking, or after drinking red wine too. Then I was diagnosed with a benign tumor. I don’t know if it was due to the stress at the time, but I would sometimes get atrial fibrillation every ten days back then.
I used to lie down in bed when I had it. I couldn’t get up. But then I started getting used to it after some time, and even carried on working when I had it. It felt like a herd of horses was stampeding through my body. It didn’t hurt, but I felt really anxious. I couldn’t sleep either. But I didn’t want to take any sedatives.
My heart would race for about twelve hours and then suddenly return to normal again. I sometimes did exercise to try to get my heartbeat back to normal, or I did something to distract myself, or breathing exercises too. That sometimes helped, but not always.
The fear was a big problem
I was a psychological mess. The frequent atrial fibrillation was really exhausting. It always made me have to go to the toilet a lot too. I generally had difficulties sleeping and was afraid of it striking again. The doctors often weren’t sure whether I should stay in hospital or whether it would go away again on its own, and I found that worrying too. It was all a bit much for me. Other people can handle it better, stay calm and just let their heart flutter away. I can’t do that.
Every time it started, I wondered what had triggered it. I started avoiding a lot of things because I thought they might trigger another episode. It changed the way I lived my life. For a long time now, everything has revolved around my pulse. I’m really extreme in that way, and that’s something I have to change. I’m working at it.
I’ve been in hospital about four times. Sometimes my heart returned to normal on its own, but one time cardioversion was performed using electric shocks. But I can’t remember it at all because I had been given a general anesthetic.
I also took beta blockers for a long time, and had to monitor my blood pressure at home for a while. That wasn’t a problem for me.
I decided to have surgery
In 2008 I decided to have a catheter procedure called ablation. It went really well and I haven’t had atrial fibrillation ever since. After the ablation I took anti-clotting medication for a while. I didn’t have any problems with it. I went to the doctor’s every week to have the clotting ability of my blood tested. I didn’t have atrial fibrillation for quite a while then, so my doctor said I could stop taking the anticoagulants.
But it still really affects me psychologically. I don’t dare to go hiking in the mountains, and I get scared in stressful situations. I worry that my heartbeat might become irregular again if my heart has to work hard. It has really affected my self-confidence. Even though I know that atrial fibrillation isn’t life-threatening, I’m still frightened.
I’m gradually returning to normal life
I’m slowly starting to exercise again and do more strenuous physical activities. I’m still anxious a lot of the time, and scared of the palpitations that I get every now and again. But I’ve started cycling and jogging again. I’m trying to get fitter again. I’d like to start swimming again too, but I’ll really have to kick myself in the butt.
I’m trying to live a relatively normal life again. I don’t know what I would’ve done if the ablation hadn’t worked. I probably would’ve tried it again. I think I should have had psychological support from the start. But my family doctor was great. He said I could call him whenever I wanted to. If I called he would reassure me that the atrial fibrillation isn’t dangerous, which made me feel better. That was all I needed to hear. But it’s also important for me to accept that the atrial fibrillation could return any time.
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Please note: The names of our interview partners have been changed to protect their identity. The photos are of models.