This is stated by the Stroke Prevention Working Group, creator of the campaign ‘Know your rhythm, check pulse for heart and head’.
A healthy heart beats regularly, about 70 times per minute. But in someone with atrial fibrillation, the heart beats irregularly and often much faster. In the Netherlands, 450,000 people know that they have the condition, while 80,000 are living with it unconsciously.
Symptoms of atrial fibrillation
According to the Heart Foundation, some people with atrial fibrillation mainly notice that their heart rhythm is ‘out of whack’. “The transition from a normal heart rhythm to atrial fibrillation is especially noticeable.” Sometimes the complaints are limited to an ‘unpleasant’ feeling.
- an irregular heartbeat (‘fluttering’)
- heart pounding
- shortness of breath
- a tight feeling in the chest
People who do not know that they have atrial fibrillation often experience fewer symptoms. “It is something that gradually becomes serious,” Monique Lindhout explains. She is director of the Brain Injury patient association, one of the organizations in the partnership.
“There is a group of people who really have complaints,” Lindhout explains. “They go to the doctor because they feel their heart is skipping.” But there is also a group of people who do not notice that they have it. “For example, because the complaints only occur at night, so you don’t notice it. Those people do not have the symptoms, but they do have the disease.”
Some people also walk around for longer with palpitations. “They then think it will go away,” Lindhout continues. “Or they feel it once and then don’t feel it again, and therefore think it’s not a problem.”
But the latter is a problem. The condition is particularly common in people over the age of 55, the director continues. “If it is not diagnosed, it cannot be treated. While atrial fibrillation can be easily treated with, for example, blood thinners or a pacemaker.”
Diabetes and old age
According to Martin Hemels, cardiologist at the Rijnstate Hospital in Arnhem, atrial fibrillation in itself is even quite harmless. “But it is often an expression of overload on the heart,” says Hemels. The condition is common in people with diabetes and as they age.
Especially at this time, it is very important that attention is paid to this, says the cardiologist. “We see that the number of overweight people is increasing, especially since the corona crisis,” says Hemels. “And as aging occurs, you see that the heart atrium starts to fibrillate, which can cause the blood to clot.”
This clotting in the blood can ultimately cause a stroke. In fact, a quarter of the approximately 40,000 strokes diagnosed annually – more than 10,000 cases – are still caused by atrial fibrillation. But that number can certainly be reduced by half, say experts from the Stroke Prevention Working Group.
The partnership has calculated that it can prevent 5,000 serious strokes per year if people remain alert to the symptoms themselves. “A stroke due to atrial fibrillation is often serious and therefore has serious consequences,” continues Lindhout, director of the Brain Injury Patient Association. “But a large proportion of strokes can be prevented if you recognize your atrial fibrillation.”
This can be done by regularly measuring your heart rate or doing a pulse check.
Cardiologist Hemels agrees. The symptoms can be overlooked, especially in elderly people. “The older you are, the vaguer the symptoms,” says Hemels. “If you are tired, then ‘it must be part of your age’, but that fatigue can also indicate that there is more going on. Then it is good if you can control yourself.”
That is why we should see atrial fibrillation more often as an ‘alarm symptom’, says Hemels. “For example, if people are tired and notice that there is atrial fibrillation, then that is an indication that something needs to be done.”
Supplies: something to keep track of time with, such as a clock or your phone, and a quiet place to sit.
Step 1: Clear the pulse you want to feel. Hold your hand with the palm up and the elbow slightly bent.
Step 2: With the other hand, place your index and middle fingers on the wrist. Finding the heartbeat may require moving your fingers back and forth.
Step 3: Count your heart rate for 30 seconds. Multiply this number by two and you have your heart rate per minute. Feel whether your heartbeat is irregular.
Step 4: Is your heart rate irregular and possibly fast (more than 100 beats per minute, for example). Please contact your doctor.