How to Identify Atrial Fibrillation

Four Methods:Recognizing Symptoms of Atrial FibrillationMeasuring Your PulseKnowing the Risk FactorsStrengthening Your Heart and Treating AF

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a condition where your heart starts beating irregularly. Your heartbeat will feel irregular and really fast, like your heart is trying to beat out of your chest. AF is a relatively common condition, particularly in people who are 40 years or older. If you think you have AF, scroll down to Step 1 to learn more about its symptoms and causes.

Method 1
Recognizing Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

There are two different kinds of AF--paroxysmal (where your heartbeat goes back to normal without medication) and persistent (which requires treatment in order for your heartbeat to return to normal. However, both of these types of AF have the same symptoms.

  1. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 1
    Monitor any breathlessness you experience. When your heart starts beating quickly, as it does when you have atrial fibrillation, the rest of your body gets less blood supply because your heart is beating less efficiently. When your body’s blood supply slows down, oxygen levels in your blood decrease, which will make you feel like you can’t catch your breath.[1]
    • You may experience this feeling of breathlessness when you are climbing the stairs, exercising, or simply just walking.
  2. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 2
    Notice if you feel like your heart is pounding. Having palpitations means that you feel like your heart is pounding or fluttering. When you experience atrial fibrillation, you may feel like your heart is trying to beat out of your chest.[2]
  3. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 3
    Sit down if you begin to feel dizzy. One symptom of AF is a feeling of dizziness. If you experience this, sit down right away. When your heart beats to quickly, the rest of your body can have a hard time keeping up. You might suddenly start feeling light-headed or nauseous, as well as dizzy.[3]
    • If you get too lightheaded, you might faint, so its important to sit down when you start feeling this way.
  4. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 4
    Be aware if you feel really tired without any real reason to feel that way. When your heart is working overtime, as it is when you have atrial fibrillation, you will get tired more easily. When AF occurs, your heart’s ventricles don’t fill up as fast, causing you to feel tired or fatigued.
  5. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 5
    Tell someone if you start feeling confused. When your heart beats irregularly, your blood flow gets messed up. This means that your brain will be receiving less blood than it is used to. Because of the lack of oxygen to the brain, you may feel confused or disoriented.[4]
  6. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 6
    Go to the hospital if you feel extensive chest pain. Chest pain generally only develops as AF progresses. Some people describe this kind of pain as squeezing or pressure that builds up around your heart. You might also feel really full, even if you haven’t eaten anything. You’ll feel pain when you are exerting effort or straining in some way. This pain is created by the heart not getting enough blood due to its irregular heartbeat.
    • If you feel chest pain, go to the hospital because this could mean you are going to have, or are having, a heart attack.
  7. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 7
    Know the difference between AF and a stroke. AF and stroke both have similar symptoms but are very different conditions. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat, while strokes are caused by a blood clot forming somewhere in your body that is stopping the circulation of blood. The way to tell the difference between the two is to check for an irregular heartbeat by checking your pulse--if your heartbeat is irregular, you have AF.
    • However, AF can lead to stroke, so it is important to get AF treated as soon as it is diagnosed.

Method 2
Measuring Your Pulse

Before going to a doctor, you can try taking your pulse at home. Most of the symptoms of atrial fibrillation can be caused by a lot of other issues, so taking your pulse can help you to figure out what your heart is up to.

  1. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 8
    Hold your hand out with your palm facing up. You should hold out your non dominant hand. For example, if you are right-handed, you would hold out your left hand. Place the index and middle finger or your dominant hand on the wrist of your outstretched hand, right below the base of your thumb.[5]
  2. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 9
    Press your fingers down on your wrist. You will have to apply a bit of pressure to feel your pulse. Start out gently and gradually apply more pressure until you can feel your pulse. It should feel like a gentle, rhythmic pressure under your fingers.
  3. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 10
    Troubleshoot if you can’t find your pulse. If you are having a hard time finding your pulse, move your fingers around to a different spot near to where you started and press down. Keep trying different spots until you find your pulse.[6]
    • You should keep your fingers in the area that is on the left side of your wrist when your palm is facing up.
  4. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 11
    Count your pulse beats. To figure out if your pulse is regular or not, look at your watch or begin a timer. You will have to count the number of pulse beats you feel during one minute of time. If you have atrial fibrillation, you will count more than 100 pulses during that minute. Your pulse will also be irregular, meaning that you won’t be able to predict when the next beat will come.
    • An average, healthy adult will have between 60 and 100 heart beats per minute (BPM). Kids ages 6 to 15 will have between 70 to 100 heart beats per minute.[7]

Method 3
Knowing the Risk Factors

  1. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 12
    Be aware that different heart diseases can cause AF. If you are suffering from a cardiovascular disease (a disease related to your heart or blood vessels), you may develop atrial fibrillation. A lot of heart diseases can affect how electricity flows through your heart. The change in electricity then changes how your heart beats. Heart diseases that can do this include[8]:
    • Hypertension, coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, pericarditis and heart diseases that you’ve had since birth (these are known as congenital heart diseases).
  2. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 13
    Know that lung diseases can sometimes affect the way your heart beats. Because your respiratory system (your lungs) and cardiovascular system (your heart) are so intertwined, a problem with your lungs can create a problem with your heart. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two of the diseases that can affect your heart beat.[9]
  3. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 14
    Understand that an overly active thyroid can cause AF. Your thyroid gland creates hormones that control growth and metabolism. When you have an overactive thyroid (which is called hyperthyroidism), it can affect your nervous system, which controls the movement of electricity through your body. When your electricity gets abnormal, your heartbeat can also become abnormal.[10]
  4. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 15
    Be aware that some lifestyle choices can cause your heart to beat abnormally. Consuming alcohol and caffeine can have an effect on how your heart beats. Caffeine in particular can cause your heartbeat to speed up (an issue called tachycardia) and that can spur on a bout of AF. Stress can also play a factor in bringing on atrial fibrillation. Stress, like caffeine, can speed up your heart, sending it spiraling into an abnormal beat.

Method 4
Strengthening Your Heart and Treating AF

  1. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 16
    Take anti-arrhythmic drugs to keep your heartbeat regular. Depending on the kind of anti-arrhythmic drugs you take, they may do one of several things. Some medications shorten the action potential of your heart, some lengthen the action potential, and some decrease the sympathetic activity of your heart.
    • The action potential of the heart refers to the electrical changes that each heart cell goes through when your heart beats.[11]
    • Decreasing the sympathetic activity of your heart means that the medications slows your heart down so that it is not beating very fast and irregularly.[12]
  2. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 17
    Treat the health conditions that caused the AF. If you have one of the conditions listed in the section of this article that discusses risk factors, you should talk to your doctor about treating that condition. When the condition is treated, your AF will most likely go away.
    • For example, if you have hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid), you would most likely take a dose of radioactive iodine that treats hyperthyroidism. After that, your heartbeat would go back to normal.[13]
  3. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 18
    Eat heart healthy foods. If you want to help your heart stay healthy, it is important to eat foods that give your heart the strength is needs to keep beating away. Some of the best heart healthy foods include:
    • Salmon, flaxseed, oatmeal, black beans, almonds, walnuts, tuna, tofu, brown rice, blueberries, carrots, spinach, and broccoli.[14] For more information on eating a heart healthy diet, click here.
  4. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 19
    Try to exercise everyday after you have gotten the O.K. by your doctor. When you have been seen by a doctor and he or she has determined that you have no underlying heart issues, you should try to work out everyday to keep your heart healthy. While it can be hard to fit exercise into your schedule, it can really help your heart if you manage to exercise for at least 30 minutes everyday. Exercising helps your heart to get strong and healthy. Exercise in ways that make you happy--be it intensely gardening, rock climbing, or wind surfing. (Of course you can also walk, run, swim, or bike if you prefer activities like that instead).
  5. Image titled Identify Atrial Fibrillation Step 20
    Reduce or stop your consumption of substances that can lead to an unhealthy heart. In particularly, caffeine, tobacco, and excessive amounts of alcohol can all give your heart a hard time. Quit smoking and reduce your intake of caffeine and alcohol--if not cut them out of your diet entirely.


  • Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing AF and he or she will be able to help you control your heartbeat.
  • The earlier your AF is diagnosed, the easier it will be to keep under control.


  • Be aware that some over-the-counter (OTC) medications can cause AF.
  • If left untreated, both paroxysmal and persistent AF can turn into permanent AF, which can lead to stroke and other heart issues.

Article Info

Categories: Cardiovascular Health and Blood Pressure