Medical News Today: Ways to stop an AFib episode

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an irregular heartbeat. People with AFib may have a rapid heart rate or feel a fluttering sensation in their chest. It can also cause fatigue, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

AFib episodes can come on suddenly and are often alarming. They can last for a few hours, a few days, or be continually present. Sometimes, the episodes stop without intervention, but other times it is necessary to take action.

This article provides strategies to help stop an attack once it starts and suggests ways to prevent future AFib episodes.

What is atrial fibrillation?

model of heart being held in hands
A fluttering sensation or a rapid heart rate may be felt by those with atrial fibrillation.

AFib is an irregular heartbeat.

It occurs when the atria of the heart (the upper chambers) quiver instead of beat as they should.

This may happen because some health problems, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), interfere with the electrical signals that control the heartbeat.

There are three types of AFib:

  • Paroxysmal: Symptoms begin suddenly and can resolve within 7 days. Most commonly, they stop in less than a day.
  • Persistent: The abnormal heartbeat lasts for more than 7 days. Sometimes treatment is necessary.
  • Permanent: This type is continually present (for 12 months) and does not respond to treatment.

While AFib itself is not usually life-threatening, people should take this medical condition seriously because it can lead to complications, such as heart failure and stroke. In fact, the AHA estimate that AFib occurs in up to 1 in 5 people who have strokes.

Ways to stop an AFib episode

There are several methods that may help stop an episode of paroxysmal or persistent AFib once it starts.

These include:

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1. Take slow, deep breaths

female instructor with students practicing yoga
It is believed that yoga can be beneficial to those with Afib to relax.

To practice deep breathing, sit down and place one hand on the stomach.

Inhale deeply through the nose, all the way into the stomach, for a count of 4 seconds.

Do this to slowly fill up the lungs with air gradually, until they are completely filled.

Hold this breath for a moment, before exhaling through the mouth for the same amount of time.

2. Drink cold water

Slowly drinking a glass of cold water can help steady the heart rate. This tip is especially useful for those whose AFib episode has been brought on by dehydration.

3. Aerobic activity

Some people report feeling better after exercising. A 2002 case study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that a 45-year-old athlete with paroxysmal AFib stopped symptoms by engaging in a low impact aerobic activity. In this case study, the athlete used an elliptical machine or a cross-country skiing machine.

People wishing to try this method of dealing with an AFib attack should speak to their doctor first.

4. Yoga

Yoga is known to relax those who practice it by focusing on the breathing. This could be beneficial for those with AFib — both to stop a current episode and as a preventative technique.

In 2015, a study published in the Journal of Arrhythmia reported that people with AFib who undertook twice-weekly yoga sessions over a 3-month period enjoyed significant reductions in high blood pressure and heart rate. Participants also reported a better quality of life.

5. Biofeedback training

Biofeedback techniques can have a calming effect on people during an AFib episode. Biofeedback involves training the mind to control the body’s responses to external and internal triggers. It can improve a person’s control of their autonomic nervous system functions, which can stabilize the heart’s rhythm.

While preliminary research on biofeedback suggests that it can be used to decrease episodes of fibrillation, more controlled research is necessary.

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6. Vagal maneuvers

These techniques may stop a paroxysmal AFib episode. Vagal maneuvers involve doing things to trigger the vagus nerve, a nerve that impacts heart function.

Examples of such maneuvers include coughing, or engaging the muscles as if having a bowel movement.

7. Exercise

Exercise helps with weight management, regulates the heart rate, stops stress, and lowers blood pressure.

Aim for at least 20 minutes of aerobic activity most days, such as:

  • walking
  • jogging
  • hiking
  • cycling
  • using an elliptical machine

Lifting weights can also be beneficial. Always warm up before exercise and stay hydrated throughout.

8. Eat a healthful diet

Follow a heart-healthy diet to reduce the risk of AFib episodes, strokes, and heart conditions.

It is also important to stay hydrated throughout the day to prevent AFib episodes and other health concerns.

  • Alcohol: Research suggests that even moderate drinking can cause AFib episodes in those with heart disease or diabetes. People with AFib should drink no more than two alcoholic beverages on any day.
  • Caffeine: Research on the benefits or risks of caffeine for people with AFib is mixed. While moderate amounts of coffee or tea may be fine, it may be best to avoid excessive quantities of caffeine.

9. Manage high blood pressure and cholesterol

Having high cholesterol is a risk factor for a heart attack, which can also impact the heart rate. High blood pressure can interfere with the electrical system that regulates a steady heartbeat.

It is important to work with a doctor if lifestyle changes cannot keep these health markers in the healthy range. For some people, medication may be necessary.

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10. Get enough sleep

Lack of sleep could trigger an AFib episode. Furthermore, some sleep conditions — including sleep apnea and insomnia — can increase the risk of heart problems.

For optimal health, people should aim to get between 7 and 9 hours of quality sleep a night. Anyone who suspects they have sleep apnea should consult a doctor.

11. Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of diabetes, sleep apnea, and high blood pressure, which are all risk factors for AFib.

12. Do not smoke

Smoking has been linked to an increased incidence of AFib. Research suggests that current smokers have a more than twofold-increased risk of AFib than non-smokers and former smokers.

Tobacco use also increases the risk of stroke and other heart conditions.

13. Stop stressing

Intense emotions, such as stress and anger, can cause problems with the heart’s rhythm. Practice good stress management techniques, such as:

  • exercise
  • deep breathing
  • meditation
  • progressive muscle relaxation
  • yoga

Many of these can also be used to stop AFib attacks in their tracks.

When to see a doctor

As AFib can lead to serious complications, such as stroke, people should treat it as a serious medical condition. It is important for anyone who experiences symptoms of AFib to see a doctor as soon as possible. The doctor may recommend medications or medical procedures to control symptoms and decrease stroke risk.

Also, if symptoms are severe or persist for longer than usual, consult a doctor.

If a person experiences any of the following, seek emergency medical treatment:

  • fainting
  • pressure or pain in the chest or arm, or other heart attack symptoms
  • difficulty speaking, weakness in the limbs, drooping of the face, or other stroke symptoms

People should only use the above-listed techniques to stop an AFib episode after first consulting a doctor about their symptoms.

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