Atrial fibrillation, also referred to as AFib, is an irregular and often rapid heart rate that can cause blood clots, heart failure, stroke, and other cardiovascular issues. Luckily, it can be easily diagnosed with an electrocardiogram (ECG) which detects arrhythmia. Still, the real challenge is identifying the underlying cause of atrial fibrillation which needs to be treated promptly for avoiding further complications.
So, let’s have a closer look now at how atrial fibrillation can be diagnosed.
The truth is, performing regular self-checks can help in the early diagnosis of atrial fibrillation. Therefore, you should consider keeping a record of atrial fibrillation-related symptoms such as easy fatigability, palpitations, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness, or even fainting.
And, once you’ve noticed that you’ve experienced such symptoms try to recollect what was happening before you’ve had the symptoms. Think about whether or not you’ve been exercising, sleeping poorly, experiencing emotional distress, or drinking alcohol. Share all of the information with your doctor to be able to identify the cause of your arrhythmia.
Plus, you can use a heart rate monitor app to record what’s happening when you experience some of the symptoms listed above and discuss the numbers with a specialist. Although such data may be helpful during your examination, your doctor will assess your condition and provide a diagnosis based on the examinations needed.
As soon as you visit your doctor, he/she will perform a thorough medical evaluation to be able to find the potential cause of atrial fibrillation. You will also have to discuss your complete medical history and any symptoms you’ve experienced. This is a key step and that’s why the self-check practice is so important.
Then, a physical examination will be performed to find any extra clues like hypertension for instance. Your doctor should also check for reversible causes of atrial fibrillation, like hyperthyroidism, pericarditis, or pulmonary embolus, because if these get treated the chances of experiencing arrhythmia again are quite low.
Labs and Tests
In general, the first test used to evaluate heart palpitations, and other atrial fibrillation signs, is an electrocardiogram (ECG). In case you seek medical help when experiencing symptoms, and have an ECG performed, it will immediately show whether or not you have atrial fibrillation.
However, if your symptoms appear and disappear, it means that you have paroxysmal (intermittent) atrial fibrillation which can provide normal results when an ECG is performed. In such cases, ambulatory monitoring, i.e. wearing an ECG recorder for days or weeks, will help in determining your diagnosis.
Also, to determine the underlying cause of atrial fibrillation, your doctor may ask for specific blood testing to look for any signs of diabetes, or a stress test in case your medical history or symptoms suggest potential coronary artery disease.
Last but not least, you may also be asked to do some imaging tests like an echocardiogram (echo) or transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE). An echo is performed to assess the cardiac valves and chambers and find signs of potential heart disease. It is a simple and non-invasive test and can be done in your doctor’s office.
On the other hand, a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) is an invasive procedure (an echo transducer is passed into the esophagus directly behind the heart) and is performed in a laboratory or operation room under a mild intravenous sedative and local anesthetic. Plus, you shouldn't for 12 hours before the test.
Although having atrial fibrillation may sound scary, it isn’t a dangerous condition. You just have to discuss every possibility with your doctor to identify the potential cause and best treatment for your condition.