September was National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month, an important time to spread knowledge about the heart condition and its impact on the health and quality of life of individuals and families throughout the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 454,000 hospitalizations where AFib is the primary diagnosis happen each year in the United States. As the incidence of AFib continues to grow, it’s critical that providers and patients understand what this heart condition means for breathing and respiratory symptoms, and what symptoms and obstacles to look out for when treating AFib patients.
Defining atrial fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a quivering or irregular heartbeat or arrythmia that can result in blood clots, stroke, heart failure, or other heart complications. The most common type of heart arrythmia, AFib occurs when the upper and lower heart chambers are not coordinated, causing the heartbeat to become slow, too quick or irregular.
AFib is usually diagnosed by an EKG or heart-rhythm tracing in a doctor’s office or emergency room.
How it affects breathing and respiratory functions
A defining symptom of AFib is shortness of breath, which arises from a lack of oxygen and the heart not pumping enough blood throughout the body. AFib patients may have trouble breathing during normal activities or rest, and a lack of oxygen may cause them to gasp for breath to compensate, even during less vigorous activities.
The heart works hand in hand with the major systems of the body, including the respiratory system. When AFib symptoms come on, they can result in mild to severe lung discomfort for individuals. When atrial contractions – necessary processes that add pressure to the heart chambers and assist with healthy blood flow – are interrupted, this puts added strain on the heart and makes inhaling and exhaling very difficult. Additionally, increased pressure in the lungs due to AFib may cause excessive fluid retention, worsening symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath.
Breathing exercises for atrial fibrillation
Every individual is different, and respiratory symptoms may present differently in patients based on various factors like age, overall health and preexisting conditions, but there are several breathing exercises that tend to be helpful for many AFib patients experiencing a racing heart.
These exercises include:
- Deep breathing: Deep breathing that causes the abdomen to rise and fall can calm a racing heart. Patients must breathe slowly and deeply, inhaling through their nose and exhaling through their nose or mouth.
- Valsalva maneuver: This maneuver is used to control a patient’s heart rate. To perform this maneuver, close your nose by pinching it with one hand. With your mouth closed, try to force the breath out through your nose. This exercise should stabilize the heart rate by affecting the vagus nerve.
- Same length breaths: Making sure each breath is the same length helps patients restore their body’s natural rhythm. Patients may practice breathing in for four counts and then breathing out for four counts.
- Counting breaths: Focusing on counting each breath can help distract patients from anxiety related to their condition and symptoms. A good pattern for this is to breathe in and out through the nose while counting each breath completed.
- Humming while breathing: Humming may help with stimulation of the vagus nerve which controls the heart rate. One way for patients to practice this is to breathe in and out through their nose, keeping their mouth closed. As they exhale slowly through their nose, they may begin humming.
AFib and similar heart conditions can have a severe impact on patients’ breathing and respiratory health. It’s critical that providers continue to educate themselves about AFib and its connection to the respiratory system in order to offer the best possible treatment and resources to patients and their families. Read this Mayo Clinic article to learn more about AFib symptoms and complications.