How to Live with Atrial Fibrillation

Four Methods:Using Lifestyle ChangesManaging Underlying Causes of Atrial FibrillationTaking the Proper Safety PrecautionsUnderstanding Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most commonly sustained arrhythmia. It is marked by disorganized, rapid, and irregular heartbeats. It is caused when the upper chambers of the heart beat too rapidly and cause the lower chambers of the heart to pump the blood abnormally and ineffectively throughout the body. Atrial fibrillation usually increases with age, with a 25% lifetime risk of this condition for those ≥40 and 2.2 million cases in America alone.[1] If you have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, there are ways that you can continue to live your regular life.

Method 1
Using Lifestyle Changes

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    Make things easier. While living with AF can be challenging, there are ways that you can make dealing with AF easier. These are habits that should be followed every day to help make life easier for you. These include:
    • Taking all medications exactly as prescribed
    • Continuing to take any prescription medication unless your healthcare provider says otherwise.
    • Discussing any medicine-caused side effects with your healthcare provider
    • Monitoring your pulse daily, especially if you have an artificial pacemaker
    • Keeping a record of your pulse along with the day and time the pulse was taken and notes about how you felt at the time[2]
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    Steer clear of harmful substances. There are some substances that can make your atrial fibrillation worse and that contribute to an irregular heartbeat. Because of this, you should avoid the substances such as:
    • Salt, which can increase your blood pressure, which triggers AF[3]
    • Caffeine
    • Tobacco
    • Alcohol, which trigger AF in some individuals
    • Cold and cough medications
    • Appetite suppressants
    • Psychotropic drugs used to treat certain mental illnesses
    • Antiarrhythmic in certain individuals, although they are used to treat arrhythmia as well
    • Beta-blockers for high blood pressure, unless cleared by your doctor
    • Street drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, “speed”, or methamphetamines
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    Manage your stress levels. High stress levels can increase your blood pressure, which can worsen your AF. High stress levels can also cause other heart diseases because it causes the constriction of your blood vessels. To reduce your stress levels:
    • Reduce your exposure to your stressors
    • Create a schedule for yourself
    • Take breaks throughout the day
    • Practice yoga
    • Set aside some time each day to meditate.[4]
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    Eat a heart-healthy diet. There is not a specific diet that is for AF patients. However, your diet can be tailored to the underlying cause and prevention of AF as well as to lower the risk of stroke and heart attack. You can also create a diet that reduces the conditions that can make your AF worse. Eat more vegetables and fruit, avoid large portion sizes, and eat whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates, which include white breads, white rice, pastries, and dessert cakes.
    • A diet that is low in refined sugars can help to reduce your blood sugar levels and lower your chance of AF.
    • A diet that is low in fat, particularly saturated fat, can help to reduce your cholesterol, which contributes to heart issues.
    • A diet that is low in sodium can help to reduce your blood pressure, which lowers your risk of AF and other heart issues.[5]
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    Quit smoking. Tobacco smoke causes the constriction of your blood vessels, which can lead to high blood pressure and can make your AF worse. It also decreases the amount of oxygen in your blood, while the nicotine can do damage to your heart. It can also lead to many other heart problems, including coronary artery disease and stroke. If you are having a hard time quitting:
    • Talk to your doctor about methods you can use to quit.
    • Join a support group for people who are trying to quit smoking.[6]
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    Exercise regularly. Your heart is a muscle, and like any other muscle, it needs to be worked out. Doing cardiovascular exercises will help work out your heart and decrease your risk of AF and other heart diseases. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week.
    • Focus on light cardio exercises that can help to get your blood pumping. Some light cardio exercises that work well include fast-paced walking, light jogging, casual cycling, and light swimming.
    • Increase how long or strenuous your fitness levels are when you get stronger. Start moderate to intense cardio or your light cardio for longer periods of time once you get used to light cardio.
    • Make sure you ask your doctor which exercises you can safely do with your heart issues.[7]
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    Take medications. There are established guidelines and treatments for atrial fibrillation using certain medications. The two main factors to be considered are the control of your heart rate, and anticoagulation therapy. Your doctor will decide on the class of medication and individual dosing to provide you with based on a full physical workup. The four classes of medications for control of the ventricular heart rate are:
    • Beta blockers such as metoprolol, which reduce blood pressure by blocking the effects of epinephrine
    • Nondihydropyridine calcium channel blockers, such as verapamil, diltiazem,
    • Digoxin, which increases the intensity of heart muscle contraction without increased the length of contraction
    • Amiodarone, which causes a prolonged phase of the heart contraction

Method 2
Managing Underlying Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

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    Reduce high blood pressure. There are other medical conditions that can make your AF less manageable. On its own, AF is not a serious problem if managed correctly. The problem is the associated increased risk for stroke, heart attack, and cardiac arrest. High blood pressure is one of the most common risk factors that lead to stroke, particularly if you have AF. In addition to lifestyle changes, talk to your doctor about medications you can take to reduce your blood pressure, which may include:
    • Beta-blockers
    • ACE inhibitors
    • Calcium channel blockers[8]
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    Control your cholesterol levels. High cholesterol can cause AF and predisposes you to plaque deposits that cause blockages and can lead to a heart attack. You can control your cholesterol through your diet and through medications. You should aim for a total cholesterol level of less than 200 mg/dL, an HDL (good cholesterol) level higher than 40mg/dL, and a LDL level (bad cholesterol) lower than 100 mg/dL.[9] Creating a cholesterol-conscious lifestyle includes:
    • Eating low-fat foods and avoiding foods that are high in saturated fat
    • Eating more fruits and vegetables
    • Taking medications for your cholesterol, such as antilipidemic drugs[10]
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    Combat obesity. Obesity and an increased body mass can put strain on your heart. This is because the excess weight causes your heart to work harder to pump blood throughout your body. You can lose excess weight by:
    • Creating a healthy diet for yourself, full of lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and limited carbohydrates.
    • Exercising, which can help you to lose weight along with a healthy diet. You need to lose 7 to 10% of your body weight if you are obese, which may help to prevent further complications associated with AF.
    • The healthy amount of weight to lose will depend on your body type, physical abilities, and an assessment with your own physician.

Method 3
Taking the Proper Safety Precautions

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    Familiarize yourself with signs of stroke. Stroke is a very real risk with AF because your heart is more susceptible to sending clots to your brain. You and your family should recognize the warning signs of stroke and heart attack. You may have some or all of the following signs when experiencing a stroke. Don’t ignore these warning signs, even if they go away. Seek immediate medical care. Signs of stroke include:
    • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
    • Slurred speech, confusion, or trouble understanding others
    • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
    • Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or coordination
    • Severe headache with no known cause[11]
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    Recognize signs of a heart attack. Because AF can increase your chances of having a heart attack, it is also important to know what symptoms to look for. If you experience some or all of the following symptoms, go to the hospital immediately:
    • Chest discomfort, often in the center of the chest, that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back and manifests as uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain
    • Discomfort or pain in other areas of the upper body, such as one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach
    • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
    • Cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness[12]
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    Prepare yourself for a medical emergency. While AF can be managed, it is always important to be prepared for a worst case scenario. There are many things you can do that will prepare you for any life threatening situation that calls for immediate medical attention. Ways that you can prepare in case your experience a medical emergency are:
    • Keeping a list of emergency phone numbers with you at all times
    • Wearing a medical bracelet indicating pertinent conditions you may have, including any allergies and devices such as a pacemaker
    • Planning in advance the route to the nearest hospital and making sure your family knows the route
    • Asking family members to take a basic life support course[13]

Method 4
Understanding Atrial Fibrillation

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    Be aware of the challenges. There are factors that predispose you to AF. Knowing these predisposing factors can help you to manage your AF. While some of these risk factors cannot be controlled, knowing what they are can help you to prepare for them, and will help when coming up with a management plan with your doctor.[14] They include:
    • Increasing age. Stroke and heart attack affect people of all ages, but the risk increases as you get older.[15]
    • Gender. Men more commonly develop medical conditions caused by AF.
    • Heredity. People whose close blood relations have had a stroke have a higher risk of stroke, heart diseases, and AF.
    • History of heart problems. If you have previously had a stroke or heart attack, your chances of having AF or other heart issues increases.[16]
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    Understand the side effects. Irregular heart rhythms due to AF can cause pooling of blood in the heart, which can lead to the formation of clots. These clots are at risk of being dislodged and traveling to the brain, where they can block blood flow and cause a stroke.
    • You may also suffer from heart failure due to AF, because it causes the heart to beat irregularly. Over time, the heart muscle can become weak and this can result in poor circulation of blood throughout the body and eventual heart failure.[17]
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    Get diagnostic test. When you have AF, your doctor may choose to routinely monitor your condition through a variety of tests that will provide a clearer picture or you condition. These tests may include:
    • ECG, a diagnostic test for atrial fibrillation. Your doctor will be able to visualize irregularities in your heartbeat and interpret new and ongoing issues with your heart.
    • Lab test for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), because elevated levels can cause your heart rate to rise.
    • Lab tests for electrolytes such as potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium, which work for the proper functioning and timing or your heart muscle. Imbalances can affect your heart negatively.
    • CBC or PT/INR, which check for the quality of your blood composition which affect your heart’s ability to pump blood.
    • Imaging, such as a chest X-ray, if cardiopulmonary disease is suspected. This can allow the doctor to actually see what is physically wrong or damaged in your heart.[18]


  • Join a support group for people with AF. This is a great way to discuss current treatments and management and even ways other people with the same disease deal with the problems and changes you are facing.
  • In case of emergency, place immediate compression on the chest using hands only CPR, where you push hard and fast against the person’s chest.

Sources and Citations

  1. Domino, F. (n.d.). The 5-minute clinical consult standard 2015 (23rd ed.)
  2. Guyton, A. C., & Hall, J. E. (2006). Textbook of Medical Physiology 11th Edition. Philadelphia: Elsevier Inc.
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Article Info

Categories: Cardiovascular Health and Blood Pressure