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Living With the Side Effects of AFib

Charlie Bassham was only 48 years old when he had his first flare of atrial fibrillation (AFib). This condition causes an uneven, often rapid heart rhythm and can raise your risk of a stroke.

Bassham’s doctor suggested two medications: a beta-blocker, a type of drug that can help slow the heart rate, called metoprolol succinate to keep his heartbeat from spiking, and an anti-arrhythmic called flecainide to even out irregular heart rhythms. But only the first medicine seemed to help, and he still struggled with symptoms.

“There was a time frame of 6 months or so that (AFib) really wrecked me as an individual,” he says. He feared that his heart rate would suddenly speed up at any given moment, and those concerns began to affect his life. “I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep because of it.”

It’s common for life to change in some ways after an AFib diagnosis. The symptoms can lead to shifts in your routine. It’s even normal to feel anxious or fearful at first. But with treatment and some healthy lifestyle changes, you can learn to manage the side effects of AFib.

This condition is different for each person. “The symptoms of AFib can vary,” says Oussama Wazni, MD, section head of cardiac electrophysiology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “Most commonly, patients will complain of palpitations, skipped heartbeats, or fast heartbeats. Others are fatigue, tiredness, or decreased endurance.”

Some people won’t notice any symptoms at all. But this can be dangerous, because people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke — even if they don’t have any symptoms. Diagnosing and treating AFib can greatly lower this risk.

When doctors diagnose AFib, Wazni says, they usually look for possible triggers or underlying conditions. Sleep apnea, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heavy alcohol use, and other issues related to your heart, kidneys, or thyroid can make you more likely to get it.

If you have one of these conditions, treating it might also manage some of your AFib symptoms.

To treat AFib itself, your doctor might prescribe medication or suggest surgery or another procedure. There are also some basic things you can do as part of your daily routine to feel better:

But many people who’ve learned to manage their AFib say it’s just as important to tackle the mental effects of the condition.

In the 2 years since Bassham was diagnosed, he’s made some changes that boosted his medical treatment.

He met with a chiropractor who suggested trying holistic treatment that targeted his digestive health. He already ate a healthy diet, but Bassham started to keep track of how the specific foods he ate affected his AFib.

He noticed that certain things, like beef and oats, seemed to trigger AFib symptoms and decided to cut them out of his diet. Since then, his symptoms have been more controlled.

Bassham, who enjoys keeping a consistent workout routine, sometimes finds that his time at the gym brings uncomfortable emotions. When he feels his heart rate go up, his fear of another AFib episode returns. But he’s able to calm himself down by reciting a prayer.

As his journey with the condition continues, Bassham has found it easier to live fearlessly. He attributes his success with AFib to his faith. “It’s not that the AFib ended, it’s that I learned to live with it. I learned to relax,” he says. “You just learn to not let it control you.”

Alice Hinrichs’s doctor diagnosed her with AFib 3 years ago, when she was 56. She can’t tell exactly when her condition flares, but she notices symptoms from time to time: She’ll feel extremely tired or be short of breath after an exercise.

Because she also has rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT), a disorder in which some blood vessels don’t develop the way they should, Hinrichs can’t take the blood-thinning drugs that many people with AFib use to prevent clots. Instead, she has a Watchman device implanted in her heart. It closes off an area called the left atrial appendage and keeps any blood clots that have formed from traveling through her bloodstream. This lowers her risk of a stroke.

She also keeps up with healthy habits to lessen her chances of complications. She works in the business office of a school, which has her sitting most of the day. So she makes an effort to take breaks and walk around.

Her doctors remind her that good physical activity doesn’t have to be intense. “Just get up and move or walk. … It doesn’t have to be a run,” Hinrichs says. “Go up and down stairs, or park (your car) away from the door instead of as close as you can get.”

Through a healthy diet and plenty of movement, Hinrichs has been able to lose weight and manage her AFib.

But the most important skill she’s picked up since her diagnosis was more of a mentality shift. “I have realized that, as a mother, you spend all of your time making sure everyone else is healthy. … We often don’t take care of ourselves,” Hinrichs says. “My biggest change is putting myself first.”

At first, she found it difficult to focus on her health. But she realized that, to take care of her family, she had to prioritize her own well-being.

Now, with the help of her three children, she makes sure to move around each day and communicate with her family if she’s feeling unwell.

Hinrichs urges anyone who has AFib to ask for help when they need it. A successful life with AFib happens through a group effort, she says. “It’s not just about the individual. It’s the family. It’s the people around you. They won’t know unless you tell them. Speak up for yourself.”

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