Atrial Fibrillation: Symptoms, Risks, Silent AF

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 19 April 2021

Silent AF: Can You Have AF and Not Know It?

AF, or atrial fibrillation, may cause a variety of symptoms that come and go. You may not realise the symptoms are caused by a heart attack because they are too unclear. You may believe you're out of shape or just don't feel right.

However, you may not be aware that you have AF. Some people don't have any signs or symptoms at all. You will hear it referred to as silent AF.


Why an AF Diagnosis Matters

The upper chambers of your heart can't fill up completely with blood when you have this common form of irregular heartbeat. Clots will be developed and moved to the brain, resulting in a stroke.

Throughout a regular physical examination, your doctor can detect signs of AF. Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) tests monitor the electrical signals generated by your heart as it beats. AF is diagnosed using this and other examinations.

AF will go away on its own for some people. Others, on the other hand, will need medication to avoid blood clots and strokes.

What Are the Symptoms?

There are several symptoms that can trigger AF. Some are so simple that they can be misunderstood. If you're older, you may believe you're exhausted or short of breath. It's also possible that you don't feel like yourself.

Some of these symptoms may indicate AF:

  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Heartbeat that races, pounds, or flutters
  • Quick or uneven pulse
  • Shortness of breath
  • Needing to urinate more often
  • Feeling dizzy, faint, or lightheaded
  • Sweating
  • Weakness
  • Pain, pressure, or tightness in your chest


Are You at Higher Risk for AF?

If you have all of these risk factors, regardless of whether you have any symptoms, you might be more likely to develop AF:

  • Older age
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid problems
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Other heart conditions like heart disease, heart valve problems, or heart failure
  • Family history of AF
  • Heavy alcohol use or binge drinking
  • Previous heart surgery
  • Lung disease
  • Sleep apnea


What Can Happen if AF Isn’t Treated?

AF is dangerous, even if it comes and goes or if there are no signs. Untreated AF can result in blood clots, which can lead to a stroke. You have the same chance of getting a stroke as someone who has symptoms.

The rapid heartbeat of AF will weaken the heart muscle. This can result in heart failure. This occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to your organs. Fatigue, exhaustion, and fluid buildup in the legs and feet are all symptoms of heart failure.

AF treatments will help you regain control of your fast or irregular heartbeat. This can aid in the prevention of blood clots and the reduction of your stroke risk.


New Tools to Check for Signs of AF

To diagnose AF, the doctor will examine your heart rate and rhythm. To track your heart's rhythm, you may need to wear a heart monitor for a few days, weeks, or most of the time.

Can you track your own heart rate or rhythm? Some newer devices, which you can wear on your wrist or slip into your pocket, can alert you and your doctor to the possibility of AF.

Heart rate trackers. Some wrist-worn devices, such as a bracelet or smartwatch, can monitor your heart rate and rhythm through a monitor next to your skin. Wristband trackers aren't always reliable, and they don't detect AF. A patch attached to the skin of your chest is a better wearable display. It maintains an accurate record of your heart rate for days or weeks.

Heart-smart watches. Another smartwatch app uses a flash of light against the skin of your wrist to track your heart rate and rhythm. This detects changes in blood flow. If the app detects an irregular heartbeat, it prompts you to perform a fast ECG by pressing your finger against an electrode on the watch. It will notify you that you might have AF and to contact your doctor.

Smartphone apps. In Europe, there is an app that monitors your heart rate and transmits the data directly to your doctor. You place your finger over the camera lens of your smartphone to take a snapshot of it. The software identifies changes in the colour of your blood that may be a symptom of AF. Besides that, it tests the amount of blood in your fingertip to determine how well the heart pumps blood.

Another app takes a picture of your face to check for symptoms of AF. It detects small changes in your skin colour that could be caused by an irregular pulse caused by AF.


What to Do if You Think You Have AF

Make an appointment with your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms consistent with AF, especially if you have any risk factors. A doctor can diagnose AF and prescribe the necessary treatments.

If you experience chest pain or strain, you could be having a heart attack. Don't wait for your next appointment to inform your doctor. Immediately dial 999 or head to the nearest emergency room.


Referenced on  13/4/2021

  1. “Can Atrial Fibrillation Be Managed?” “How to Know It’s Atrial Fibrillation,” “Why Is Atrial Fibrillation a Problem?”
  2. Mayo Clinic: “Atrial fibrillation,” “Atrial Fibrillation Won’t Cause Heart Attack but Can Lead to Other Serious Complications.”
  3. Journal of Atrial Fibrillation: “Silent Atrial Fibrillation: A Critical Review.”
  4. American Heart Association: “Warning Signs of a Heart Attack.”
  5. Heart Rhythm Society: “Complications from Atrial Fibrillation,” “Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation,” “Risk Factors for Atrial Fibrillation (AF),” “Symptoms of AF.”
  6. Cleveland Clinic: “Smartwatch Technology Detects AF Prior to Cardioversion.”
  7. American College of Cardiology: “ECG on Smartwatch Accurately Detects AF.”
  8. Journal of the American Medical Association: “Effects of a Home-Based Wearable Continuous ECG Monitoring Patch on Detection of Undiagnosed Atrial Fibrillation.”
  9. Franciscan Health: “New Atrial Fibrillation (AF) Apps Track Irregular Heartbeats.”
  10. Journal of the American Heart Association: “Contact-Free Screening of Atrial Fibrillation by a Smartphone Using Facial Pulsatile Photoplethysmographic Signals.”

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