How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?

Many people feel nervous about visiting their doctor, but your doctor will be the best person to diagnose your symptoms. Try this simple test once a month to see if you have an irregular heart beat. Remember, you are not checking your pulse rate, you are checking how your heart is beating not the number of beats. 12

  1. Turn your left hand so your palm is facing up. Place the first two fingers of your right hand on the outer edge of your left wrist, just below where your thumb and wrist meet.
  2. Slide your fingers towards the center of your wrist until you find your pulse.
  3. Press your fingers down on your wrist until you feel your pulse, being careful not to press too hard. Move your fingers around until your pulse is easy to feel.
  4. Feel your pulse for 1 minute. Don’t count the beats, just pay attention to whether the rhythm is regular or irregular. A regular pulse will feel even and consistent; an irregular pulse will be erratic and unpredictable. Younger people checking their pulse may have slowly changing variations in rhythm due to breathing, but often it is a gradual change and not erratic.

If you feel any irregularity, it's time to talk to your doctor.

Tests for diagnosis 2, 13-15

An irregular heartbeat is just a symptom, so your doctor might order one or more of the following tests to confirm a diagnosis.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

Also known as an ECG, this test is the primary tool used to diagnose AF. It uses small sensors (electrodes) that attach to your chest and arms, which record the electrical activity of your heart to see if it is beating normally.

Holter monitor

This is a portable ECG device that you carry in your pocket or wear on your belt. It records your hearts activity for 24 hours or longer which may help to identify infrequent AF.

Event recorder

This is a portable ECG device that is intended to monitor your heart’s activity over a period of weeks to months. You activate it yourself if you experience the symptoms of a fast heart rate.

Echocardiogram

This is a noninvasive test that uses sound waves to generate a video image of your heart. The video images will show you in real time the motions your heart goes through and may help to identify any heart valve defects.

Blood tests

These help your doctor to rule out thyroid problems or other substances that may lead to AF.

Chest X-ray

These will help your doctor to see the condition of your heart and lungs, and may help to rule out conditions other than AF that may be causing your symptoms. 7

ECG trace of a normal and an AF-affected heart

ECG trace of a normal and an AF-affected heart

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Holter monitor

Holter monitors can detect infrequent AF

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Event recorder

Event recorders are self activated when you experience symptoms

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Echocardiograms

Echocardiograms can highlight valve defects

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