#272 Can You Live a Normal Life with Atrial Fibrillation?

Can You Live a Normal Life with Atrial Fibrillation?

No one with atrial fibrillation wants to feel like their life is over.  They still want to be able to do everything they did in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. With the right treatment plan, you can absolutely live a normal life with atrial fibrillation. The purpose of this article is to open your eyes to just how much is really possible.

Maria’s Experience

Maria was sure her life was over. In her mind, atrial fibrillation meant no more sex, traveling, hot tubs, or rollercoasters. Still, she wanted to believe she could do the same things as everyone else.

Even though she was only 52, she felt like she was still 32.  Her friends and family members all told her that she needed to be careful with atrial fibrillation.  Her primary care doctor wanted her to stop exercising for fear of a heart attack.

She didn’t want to be a cardiac cripple for the rest of her life.  And she definitely didn’t want to live like someone who was old.  She wanted to know if a normal life with atrial fibrillation was possible.

What holds people back with atrial fibrillation?

In my experience, the main two things that keep people from resuming normal activity with atrial fibrillation is the sometimes rapid heart rate and medication side effects. Indeed, until your atrial fibrillation heart rate is under control, you will probably become very winded and lightheaded with any activity.

The second main thing holding people with atrial fibrillation back from living a normal life is all of the new medications. These medications often turn high-energy people into zombies.

There is no reason why you should be on a medication that makes you tired, dizzy, or causes weight gain. If you don’t feel better on atrial fibrillation medications, then you either need a different drug or a new approach to treating your atrial fibrillation.

And if your cardiologist isn’t open to non-drug alternatives, then you may want to get a second opinion. The thing to remember about atrial fibrillation is that if the drugs don’t work, there is always an option that doesn’t involve medications.

Is sex OK with atrial fibrillation?

Sex, even among the more adventurous in this arena, is generally considered to be a moderate form of exercise. As such, studies show that as long as you can sustain a moderate level of  physical activity without symptoms, and you are in a stable monogamous relationship, then sex with any heart condition should pose little risk.

The reason why a stable monogamous relationship is important when it comes to having sex with a heart condition is that studies show that the vast majority of cardiovascular deaths during sex occur during an extramarital affair. While some may claim this is karma, it may just be that the sexual stress from infidelity may be too great for someone with a heart abnormality.

Can you drive your car in atrial fibrillation?

I know it seems strange, but I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked this question.  Yes, you can absolutely drive your car in atrial fibrillation.  Assuming, of course, that you could drive a car before atrial fibrillation…

Unless you are on the brink of passing out or otherwise distracted from the craziness of your atrial fibrillation heart rate, then you are safe to drive a car.  Believe it or not, my home state of Utah requires me to “sign off” on every one of my atrial fibrillation patients who wants to maintain a driver’s license.  As long as their arrhythmias have been under control, this has never been a problem.

Can you be active with atrial fibrillation?

Absolutely! The goal with all of my atrial fibrillation patients is to help them be as active as they possibly can. Indeed, studies show that the more physically active you are, the better you feel, the less atrial fibrillation you will have, and the less you will weigh.

Of course, until your atrial fibrillation is under control, your doctor may not want you to be that active. The reason for this is that until things are under control, your heart might go dangerously fast with atrial fibrillation. However, with the right treatment, you should be back to full activity within a few weeks.

Can you travel with atrial fibrillation?

Yes, you can still travel with atrial fibrillation. However, as with physical activity, your physician may want you to hold back until your atrial fibrillation is under control.

Even though airplane cabins are pressurized, at typical cruising altitudes this is the equivalent of being at an elevation of six to eight thousand feet (1,800 to 2,400 m) above sea level. Since higher elevations mean there is less oxygen, an uncontrollably fast atrial fibrillation heart rate could get you into trouble.

One other consideration for traveling is that you don’t want to wind up in the emergency room of some third world country. Once again, close partnership with your cardiologist should allow you a backup plan should an atrial fibrillation problem arise.

Can you ride a rollercoaster with atrial fibrillation?

The thrill of rollercoasters causes a massive adrenalin release. This adrenalin release then causes your blood pressure and heart rate to shoot up.

If your heart is already beating too fast with atrial fibrillation, then this adrenalin rush only makes matters worse. If, however, your atrial fibrillation is adequately treated then you should still be able to enjoy your favorite rollercoaster.

Can atrial fibrillation patients get in a hot tub?

Hot water causes your blood vessels to dilate. As your blood vessels dilate, your blood pressure may drop.

As this is often a dose-related effect, the longer you are in the hot tub, the lower your blood pressure may go. In fact, your blood pressure may go so low that you pass out either in the hot tub or while you are trying to get out of the hot tub.

For people not on medications, this usually isn’t a problem as the body generally compensates. However, if your doctor has you on atrial fibrillation medications that lower your blood pressure, like beta-blockers, diltiazem, or an antiarrhythmic, this could be a problem.

Another theoretical concern is for the person on a blood thinner. If you were to cut yourself somehow getting into the hot tub, the hot water could result in more bleeding.

The bottom line is that if you are on any prescription medications; please speak with your doctor before getting into a hot tub. It is possible that with the right precautions like hydrating first or limiting your time in the hot tub, you may still be able to enjoy this activity.

Can you skydive or scuba dive with atrial fibrillation?

When it comes to skydiving, I put the cardiovascular risk on par with riding a roller coaster. While both activities are not that physically demanding in most cases, the adrenalin release may be massive.

Thus, this adrenalin release could trigger an atrial fibrillation episode. If, however, your heart is already out of rhythm, then the adrenalin spike may cause your heart to beat extremely fast. As with all of the other activities discussed, if your atrial fibrillation is under good control, then skydiving should pose little risk.

Scuba diving, in contrast, may seem like it would be much more gentle on the heart. Indeed, you probably won’t get that same adrenalin rush unless you had a shark coming at you.

However, because of unexpected currents, wind, and water temperature, this sport could quickly tax your cardiovascular system. It is for this reason that I make my atrial fibrillation patients pass a full-exertion stress test before embarking on their scuba diving trip.

Practical Tips

The key to living a normal life with atrial fibrillation is to find an open-minded cardiologist who listens to your needs and can work with you to regain your normal life. For some people, medications allow them to resume full activities. For others, it may require a drug-free solution, like losing weight or a catheter ablation procedure, to get back to their previous life. As everyone’s condition, needs, and desires are different; this will require a tailored approach between you and your cardiologist.

Of course, nothing in this article should be taken as medical advice.  Make sure you are in close communication with your physician when it comes to engaging in any physical activity with atrial fibrillation.  Poorly controlled atrial fibrillation is a high risk situation that requires prompt treatment.

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Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.

1 Comments
  1. About 30 years ago I had a large hole in my heart patched. Prior to that I had always had a heart murmur but I was otherwise healthy and slim. I did experience breathlessness when hiking. After the surgery I had atrial fib. I had a couple of bad bouts before it stabilized and then I proceeded with my life. I did make it a practice to keep fit and to eat healthily. Last year (age 77) I had a bicuspid valve replaced (this was also congenital) and the surgeon tried the maize procedure as well. But my AF returned. And once again my cardiologist told me to live with it. At present I am on warfarin and a water pill. From the many years of valve leakage I had developed cirrohsis of the liver thus the water pill. I do eat healthy – veggies, fruit, fish, etc. as well I usually walk 8000-10000 steps a day, go to yoga and ride my bike. The pool in our complex is being repaired and when that is finished I plan to get back to swimming. So, I am now 79 and I am able to outwalk most of my peers and generally I feel pretty good. There are other unrelated health problems (some osteo arthritis,and IBS. My advise to others is to stay in touch with your cardio (mine was very supportive and encouraged me to be active), to be well informed about your meds and any side effects, to be involved, active and enjoy life. I was born with congenital heart conditions, I have been married twice, had 3 children, had a great career as a teacher (P.E.) was one of the subjects I specialized in for elementary school kids and have a great husband, family and friends.