Atrial fibrillation (A-fib) is an irregular heartbeat. People with A-fib may have a rapid heart rate or feel a fluttering sensation in their chest. It can also cause fatigue, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
A-fib 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 A-fib episodes.
Fast facts on how to stop an A-fib episode:
- The condition of atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat, affects at least 2.7 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
- Slow and focused breathing can relax the heart and bring back a normal heartbeat.
- Regular physical activity can play a role in the prevention of A-fib episodes.
A-fib 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 A-fib:
- 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 A-fib 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 A-fib occurs in up to 1 in 5 people who have strokes.
There are several methods that may help stop an episode of paroxysmal or persistent A-fib once it starts.
1. Take slow, deep breaths
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 A-fib 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 A-fib 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 A-fib attack should speak to their doctor first.
Yoga is known to relax those who practice it by focusing on the breathing. This could be beneficial for those with A-fib — 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 A-fib 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 A-fib 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.
6. Vagal maneuvers
These techniques may stop a paroxysmal A-fib 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.
Aim for at least 20 minutes of aerobic activity most days, such as:
- 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 A-fib episodes, strokes, and heart conditions.
It is also important to stay hydrated throughout the day to prevent A-fib episodes and other health concerns.
- Alcohol: Research suggests that even moderate drinking can cause A-fib episodes in those with heart disease or diabetes. People with A-fib should drink no more than two alcoholic beverages on any day.
- Caffeine: Research on the benefits or risks of caffeine for people with A-fib 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
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.
Blood pressure monitors are available from pharmacies or you can purchase them online.
10. Get enough sleep
Lack of sleep could trigger an A-fib 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 A-fib.
12. Do not smoke
Smoking has been linked to an increased incidence of A-fib. Research suggests that current smokers have a more than twofold-increased risk of A-fib 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:
- deep breathing
- progressive muscle relaxation
Many of these can also be used to stop A-fib attacks in their tracks.
As A-fib 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 A-fib 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:
- 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 A-fib episode after first consulting a doctor about their symptoms.