Is it AFib or a Heart Attack?
Why knowing the difference between the two is important for your health.
Atrial fibrillation (or AFib) attacks can be very similar to a heart attack in many cases. They share a lot of the same symptoms and can show up in varying levels of severity. However, even though the two conditions both affect the heart, they are very different. They are caused by different conditions, triggers, treatments and consequences. In this article, we'll highlight the differences between the two and equip you with the knowledge you need to take control of your health.
If you are experiencing any kind of chest pain at all, please visit a physician as soon as possible.
AFib & Heart Attacks: The Causes
Atrial fibrillation is a specific kind of heart arrhythmia in which the upper chambers of the heart get out of sync with the lower ventricles. This is usually caused by a misfiring electrical impulse or some other stimulus. When the heart gets out of sync, it can cause all kinds of discomfort and pain. Fortunately, in the early stages, the heart will get back in sync with itself on its own, leaving the person feeling better.
Heart attacks, on the other hand, are a vascular problem. Heart attacks happen when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Without blood, heart tissue doesn't get the oxygen it needs and begins to die. In this case, the issue is not with the heart itself, but the blood vessels that bring blood into the heart.
The similarity of symptoms
Even though these conditions are caused by two very different factors, they share many of the same symptoms. This can make determining what is wrong very difficult for the average person who is trying to assess their health.
The main symptoms that distinguish AFib from a heart attack are that AFib is sometimes accompanied by a fluttering in the chest and confusion, while some heart attack victims have nausea with neck and jaw pain. And that's it. Aside from that, these two conditions have several overlapping symptoms. What makes this even more complicated is that not all of these symptoms show up in every single person every single time.
How do you know for sure?
If you are concerned about your heart health, the first thing you should do is schedule a visit with your doctor. Aside from that, there are two different screenings you can have that will assess your risk for both AFib and a heart attack.
Since AFib is caused by a heart arrhythmia, it is very easy to detect through a standard EKG. In this test, painless electrodes are placed on your wrists and ankles. An electrocardiogram then reads your pulse over a set period of time and keeps track of the rhythm of your heartbeat. It is a quick, non-invasive and painless procedure. A trained technician will then review your readout with you and show you anything out of the ordinary. This includes any heart arrhythmias, not just atrial fibrillation.
Heart attacks are caused by blockages in the arteries that carry blood back to your heart. So, the best way to assess your risk for a heart attack is to check the health of these blood vessels. Again, this can be done through a quick, noninvasive test called a vascular ultrasound. An ultrasound machine (the same one used on pregnant women) is used to check arteries for blockages and to make sure blood is flowing properly. If your blood flow is restricted from a buildup of arterial plaque, then it significantly increases your chances of having a heart attack. This test can also be done quickly and you will have your results immediately.
How can I reduce my risk?
Surprisingly, even though these two conditions have different causes, a lot of the things you can do to reduce your risk for one will also reduce your risk for the other. This is because the healthier your heart is, the less likely it is to have any kind of issue. And heart health is tied directly to the health of your blood vessels and lungs as well. Here are some things you can do to reduce your risk of both AFib and a heart attack:
- Exercise regularly
- Quit smoking
- Consume less alcohol
- Reduce your caffeine intake
- Get a regular sleep schedule
- Reduce unneeded stress
- Decrease your intake of salts, trans fats, saturated fats & cholesterol
All of these are easier said than done, especially when they are habits you've built up over a lifetime. However, all of them will have a dramatic impact on the health of not just your heart, but the rest of your body as well.
Not sure if you're at risk? Get screened with Life Line Screening
Life Line Screening offers both of the tests mentioned earlier, the EKG and the vascular ultrasound. If you're concerned about your health, or just want to know where you stand, these tests offer you invaluable information about your body. We encourage you to share your results with your doctor as soon as you get them.
Scheduling an appointment is easy, with convenient locations all across the United States. Click below to find the Life Line Screening location closest to you.
This article has been reviewed by the Life Line Screening clinical team. You can learn more about this team of experts HERE.