A rugby legend’s experience offers some helpful answers
“Like a galloping horse with six legs.”
This was the memorable phrase that Welsh rugby star Alun Wyn Jones recently used to describe how atrial fibrillation was affecting his heartbeat.
Jones, 38, was diagnosed with AF last summer, though he only went public about the condition in December, shortly after his retirement.
One of the notable aspects of Jones’s story was that, until a routine medical check discovered an abnormal rhythm in his heart, he had no idea he was suffering from any issues at all.
“I can remember getting the odd heart palpitation, but didn’t think anything of it as I was used to pushing my body,” he told the Telegraph newspaper.
It was only when his new club, Toulon, arranged an ECG test for him that he realised there was a problem. “[My heartbeat] was all over the shop,” he recalled.
AF doesn’t always cause obvious symptoms
Jones’s case highlights a key point about AF, which is the most common of all heart rhythm conditions. Like high blood pressure, many people aren’t aware they suffer from it. “Some people have lots of symptoms […] and know exactly when they have gone into atrial fibrillation,” explains the Heart Rhythm Alliance. “Their symptoms can stop what they would normally do. But others have no symptoms and don’t know they have atrial fibrillation. We know very little about why some people have symptoms and others do not.”
AF does have the potential to cause problems
What we do know about AF, however, is that it can have negative effects on the heart. In simple terms, atrial fibrillation is an abnormal rhythm that causes the heart to contract in an irregular way (to “fibrillate”). This irregularity can cause the heart chambers to pump less efficiently. And that in turn can put the heart and other organs under more pressure than normal.
AF’s most common symptoms
If you were to develop signs of atrial fibrillation, however, what would they look like? There are several common symptoms that can, potentially, be flags for the condition:
Palpitation is a fluttery feeling in the chest; a sense that the heart is beating faster, more slowly, or more forcefully than usual. Palpitation isn’t usually a cause for alarm; most people experience it from time to time, and for many different reasons. But a new or persistent palpitation could be an early signal of a deeper heart rhythm problem, such as AF
This was likely another of Jones’s early AF symptoms, though he wasn’t aware of it at the time. Two years before the diagnosis, Jones had noticed an unexpected drop-off in his “numbers” (the fitness data captured during matches). As he realised in retrospect, that may be because AF can cause patients to feel unusually tired and washed out. “Now it works out why I was feeling fatigued,” he explained.
Shortness of breath
Estimates suggest AF can cause the heart’s output to drop by as much as 20 percent. Not surprisingly, that’s likely to have an impact on other parts of the body. The amount of oxygen in the blood can also drop, leading to breathlessness (and, sometimes, light-headedness or dizzy spells). Fluid can also build up in the lungs, making it more difficult to breathe.
Pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest can be a sign of atrial fibrillation, potentially due to reduced blood pressure to the heart. Since chest pains can be a sign of a heart attack or other serious cardiac conditions, however, it should be treated as a medical emergency and you should consult a doctor immediately.
The good news about AF is that, with a proper treatment plan, it can usually be managed very effectively. The important thing is to get a full diagnosis – something that Jones pointed out in his interview.
“I was very lucky how it worked out and will forever be grateful to Toulon for signing me,” he said, reflecting on the medical test that uncovered his AF. “Had they not offered me a contract, I may never have known about the heart condition.”