Atrial fibrillation: listen to your heart’s rhythm

News /

Share this

Boyd Fraser with his bicycle
Boyd Fraser.
Whether you’re a runner, roller-blader or cyclist, or even if you love all three, as 63-year-old Boyd Fraser does, any changes in endurance, capacity or ability to breathe freely while exercising may be a sign of a heart problem that needs checking.

For Boyd, who has been active all his life, the first sign of what was later diagnosed as the heart rhythm problem atrial fibrillation occurred three years ago when he began getting breathless as he exercised.

“I found even after running only a couple of hundred metres I was breathless. Usually I could run kilometres with no issues.”

Eventually, puzzled and concerned, Boyd went to his local GP who referred him for heart-function tests but these showed nothing.

And then the breathlessness stopped as suddenly as it had begun. It didn’t return until early 2017 when once again Boyd became breathless while exercising but this time there was also sometimes dizziness.   

When the breathlessness was joined by a feeling that his heart was racing, Boyd went to emergency at his large local hospital.

“They immediately said ‘Boyd, you’re in AFib’.”

Since that diagnosis, Boyd has been on a campaign to educate himself and others about atrial fibrillation, a condition he knew nothing about but which he has since discovered affects between 2-4% of the population. “I consider myself reasonably well educated but I knew nothing about atrial fibrillation.”

He now knows the condition is a type of abnormal heart rhythm, an arrhythmia, of the heart. It begins in the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) and causes them to quiver or fibrillate, instead of beating normally. 

This irregularity can result in the heart not pumping blood around the body as efficiently as it should – and can lead to all the symptoms that Boyd experienced.

Some people have a single episode of atrial fibrillation; for others, it can come and go (sporadic or paroxysmal), or be permanent (persistent).

Left undiagnosed and untreated, atrial fibrillation can cause blood clots that can block blood supply to vital organs and lead to a stroke. It can also contribute to other forms of heart disease such as heart failure.

For Boyd Fraser, the condition did not abate and eventually doctors decided to perform an ablation, a procedure that scars a small part of tissue in the part of the heart that's allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause the abnormal heart rhythm.

Since the procedure in May 2018, Boyd has been feeling well enough to resume exercising. “I go riding every Saturday and Sunday for three to three and a half hours and I’ve started rollerblading again, too.”  

Running, which is where much of Boyd’s original arrhythmia presented itself, still feels a bridge too far. “I will get back to it but I am apprehensive,” he says.

His main hope is that others – including keen exercisers like himself – will become more aware of atrial fibrillation and take note of any changes and get any symptoms checked.

He now realises he should have gone to his GP when he first began experiencing symptoms, to gain advice about the safest form of exercise for him.

“I think sometimes people ignore changes because they’re actually worried it might be serious – I know I did – but it’s best to get symptoms checked.”  

Learn more about heart conditions, including atrial fibrillation