Respiratory problems to look out for with AFib
Palpitations, a rapid heart beat, and a flutter in the chest might be the most common symptoms of AFib, but they aren’t the only signs that your heart rhythm is off.
Your heart works in tandem with other systems in your body, including your respiratory system. Sometimes AFib impacts breathing; the symptoms can be mild, but they can also be prominent and unsettling. Learn how AFib can affect the lungs, and what you can do to ease the discomfort.
How your heart can leave you breathless
AFib symptoms can differ from person to person, but whatever form they take, they can be frightening. That’s especially true when a quivering heart muscle allows blood to get struck in the heart, leaving you short of breath.
Not everyone with AFib will feel changes in their breathing. Respiratory problems often come when AFib has been left unattended for long enough to cause significant blood backup.
Atrial kick. AFib leads to a loss of “atrial kick”, which results in a 30% loss of output from the heart. In turn, your organs tell the brain to send more oxygen, and the brain instructs the lungs to work harder. This manifests as heavier, faster breathing – it’s an involuntary response to oxygen-starved tissues.
Fluid buildup. A rapidly beating heart won’t be able to pump blood into the body as well as it should, causing blood to gather in the pulmonary veins (which lead from the lungs to the heart). When blood doesn’t move freely between the lungs and heart, fluid can build up in the lungs.
Fluid in the lungs is often a sign that AFib has advanced so much that it’s led to heart failure. At this point, breathing can become labored because your lungs can’t bring in or move out oxygen easily. And without a steady supply of oxygen, your muscles and organs will start to feel the fatiguing effects, too.
Is sleep apnea making things worse?
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, your risk of developing AFib is two to four times greater than average. There are different kinds of sleep apnea – obstructive or central – that are brought on by different deficiencies. But whether your upper airway collapses during sleep (obstructive) or your central nervous system doesn’t control your breathing while you’re asleep (central), you’re at risk for a range of medical problems.
When sleep apnea goes untreated for a long time, it can cause cognitive impairments and increase your chances of developing several cardiovascular conditions. The relationship between sleep apnea and AFib is still not entirely understood, but it does seem to be reciprocal: not only is your risk of developing AFib greater when you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea, but experts estimate that half of all AFib patients also have sleep apnea.
If you have both conditions, treating one could help to control the other. Sleep apnea usually calls for treatment with a CPAP machine and some lifestyle changes. Your doctor will outline your best course of action.
Anxiety attacks, hyperventilation, and AFib
If you feel anxious about your AFib symptoms, you’re not alone. For many people, the symptoms of an irregular heartbeat are frightening and worrisome enough to bring on a panic attack, and all of the discomforts that come with it. In some cases, the racing heartbeat, muscle tension, adrenaline rush, and lightheadedness can trigger an AFib episode.
Whether anxiety feeds your AFib or it’s the other way around, the panic could interfere with your breathing. When you begin to breathe too fast, exhaling more than you inhale, your body doesn’t receive an adequate amount of oxygen. This is known as hyperventilation, and there are some ways to help overcome it.
Breathe more slowly, not more deeply. Though it may seem helpful, deep breathing can make things worse. Instead, you want to balance out the length of your inhalations and exhalations by slowing down the breathing reflex. Some techniques to help you slow your breath include:
- Holding your breath for 10 to 15 seconds
- Breathing in and out of a paper bag
- Breathing through pursed lips
Use the CART technique. Experts have designed some simple breathing exercises that can help overcome panic attacks and hyperventilation when used daily. Compared to other behavioural therapies, like cognitive therapy, CART is more effective at changing the breathing physiology in panic attacks.
Breathing retraining may not cure your anxiety or your AFib, but it can be a good way to cope with symptoms. And if you’re looking for more ways to cope, start by examining the stress in your life: it’s often at the root of medical conditions, and uncontrolled stress can make it difficult to control anything else.
Know when to see a doctor
Dealing with breathing discomforts at home is important, but it’s also important to know when your breathlessness requires medical attention. If you feel chest pain or a heaviness that’s preventing you from taking in a full breath, don’t wait for it to pass: breathing problems can be a medical emergency, so speak with your doctor now about warning signs to watch for, and when to call an ambulance.