Do you ever feel a slight “fluttering” sensation in your chest? Some people describe it as a “quivering heart.”

Many people experience slight heart palpitations from time to time. Such feelings can be brought on by exercise, anxiety, excess caffeine and other things. Generally, these last only a few seconds, and not a cause for worry.

Such symptoms could also be a sign you have Atrial Fibrillation (also called AF, or AFib). This is a medical term for a condition during which the heart may suddenly begin to beat irregularly, often rapidly.

If you should experience this sensation for the first time, it would be wise to bring this to the attention of your primary care provider. You should seek medical help right away if this happens a lot and is accompanied by fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain or dizziness — or even call 911 if you are having shortness of breath along with severe chest pain, unusual sweating or dizziness.

Your heart has four separate chambers. Thanks to precision, careful timing of the muscular movements of these chambers, the heart pumps continuously, circulating oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body, returning oxygen-poor blood back to the lungs to be re-vitalized with oxygen — and the cycle continues.

When AFib happens, the two upper chambers (the atria) beat erratically and become out-of- step with the beats of the lower chambers (the ventricles).

In many patients with AFib, the condition can come and go. This type of AFib is known as paroxysmal AFib. In most cases this is not life threatening. A more serious type of AFib, persistent AFib, doesn’t go away and really needs to be treated. Such AFib can cause serious complications like blood clots, stroke and related heart problems. It can also lead to chronic fatigue, congestive heart failure and an inconsistent supply of blood to the vital organs.

AFib is the most common serious heart rhythm abnormality in people over the age of 65. People with high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and sleep apnea are also at risk for AFib and other heart disorders. Additional risk factors include some surgeries (cardiac surgery or otherwise), having an overactive thyroid, pneumonia, binge drinking or drug abuse.

If your provider or cardiologist suspects you have AFib, she may recommend an evaluation beginning with a basic electrocardiogram (EKG). A specialized ultrasound test called an echocardiogram may be ordered. This test allows doctors to see how the heart pumps and the direction of blood flow through its chambers. Both these exams are easy and pain-free.

Certain blood tests may also be ordered. If you have the type of AFib that comes and goes, your provider may prescribe an event monitor or Holter monitor. These are small electronic devices you wear at home for a set period, to watch and record your heart’s activity over time. Treatments for AFib may include medications or other approaches, such as a pacemaker, to keep the heart’s electrical system in tune.

Vrinda Sardana is a doctor at St. Joseph Cardiology.
Learn more about writing for the BDN.

If you have a passion, an idea, expertise, and a desire to share it with people who love Maine, we want to hear from you. Click here to find out what it means to write for BDN Maine.