Dr. Day is a cardiologist/electrophysiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and currently serves as the president of the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
How Do You Diagnose Atrial Fibrillation?
If your heart isn’t beating right, you want it diagnosed quickly. Sometimes it can take years before your doctor can make the correct diagnosis. If you suspect that you might have atrial fibrillation, this article is for you. In this article, I will teach you how to diagnose atrial fibrillation.
Every time Melanie’s heart raced uncontrollably, she rushed to the hospital. She knew that if she could get to the hospital in time, her doctors could finally make the diagnosis. But they never could.
Instead, they merely diagnosed her with panic attacks. Despite being labeled with panic attacks, Melanie still knew there had to be something wrong with her heart—something that her doctors couldn’t find.
Melanie isn’t alone. Many people suffer from atrial fibrillation for years because it never seems to show up on an EKG.
Can an EKG Diagnose Atrial Fibrillation that Comes and Goes?
The problem with the standard EKG is that it is only about a 10-second snapshot of what your heart is doing. If atrial fibrillation happens to be occurring during those exact 10 seconds, then the diagnosis is easy to make. However, if you are like most of my patients, atrial fibrillation never seems to happen when the doctor’s EKG machine is running.
What is an Event Monitor?
The key to finally making Melanie’s diagnosis was a much longer EKG—an EKG that continued for an entire month. This one month long EKG is also known as an event monitor.
An event monitor is a small electronic device that monitors your EKG for prolonged periods of time. You wear it under your clothes. You even wear it while you are sleeping. The only time you take it off is when you shower or go swimming.
Event Monitor vs. Holter Monitor: Which is Best?
Perhaps you have heard of a Holter monitor. The Holter monitor is usually much larger than an event monitor. Also, the Holter monitor is taped to your chest for 24 to 48 hours. During this period, you can’t even shower.
The benefit of a Holter monitor is that it is only 24 to 48 hours. If your atrial fibrillation happens during this short period, then you are golden. If, however, nothing happens then it was a waste of time and money. This is why I generally prefer the event monitor over the Holter monitor.
Besides being stuck with the monitor for a month, the only other drawback of the event monitor is the cost. Event monitors generally cost much more than a Holter monitor.
If cost is an issue, talk with your doctor about using the Alivecor system described below. While the Alivecor system probably isn’t covered by your insurance, the $99 you’ll pay is likely much less than the co-pay on an event monitor.
What if the Event Monitor Doesn’t Show Anything?
For some of my patients, a month-long EKG may still not be a long enough period to detect atrial fibrillation. For these people, more advanced technologies are needed. Two such possibilities include an implantable loop recorder or a smartphone EKG app.
What is an Implantable Loop Recorder?
An implantable loop recorder is a small chip that cardiologists inject under the skin on your chest. This chip continuously monitors your EKG for the life of its battery which is generally about three years.
This technology is especially helpful in that any episodes of atrial fibrillation you may be having, even if you are asleep, are automatically recorded and sent to your physician. All of this happens without you having to do a thing.
The implantable loop recorder automatically communicates with your transmitter at home once a day. If you are having symptoms, you can do a manual transmission of your EKG to your doctor’s office.
One thing to remember is that while the implantable loop recorder goes in quickly, there is usually a bigger scar getting it out three years later. Thus, if you don’t want a half inch scar on your chest, then this technology is not for you.
What is a Smartphone ECG app?
The second approach to prolonged EKG monitoring is to turn your smartphone into an EKG machine. This is done through Bluetooth enabled electrodes and a smartphone app. The best-studied device is the FDA-approved Alivecor system.
If you really want to go high tech on this, you can get it on your Apple Watch. Hundreds of my patients have used this system with excellent results. Indeed, studies show that the Alivecor system is one of the best ways to diagnose atrial fibrillation.
If you think you may be suffering from atrial fibrillation, you need to get it diagnosed. And you need an EKG to diagnose atrial fibrillation. Only then can you be appropriately treated. Knowledge is power, and you have to capture your symptoms on an EKG.
How you do the EKG doesn’t matter. The key is to document the rhythm.
Of course, don’t try to diagnose atrial fibrillation without the help of your doctor. Unless you are an EKG master, there will be mistakes. As the stakes are high with heart issues, work with your doctor to correctly diagnose atrial fibrillation.
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.