What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is the rapid, uncoordinated movements of the heart’s upper two chambers, the atrial. Disorganized electrical signals cause the heart to flutter, throwing off the heartbeat rhythm. AFib is the most common heart dysrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. Atrial flutter is a similar condition, and although the rhythm is less chaotic, symptoms and causes are the same. Atrial fibrillation affects millions of Americans, most frequently persons over the age of 65. Women are more likely to experience atrial fibrillation than men.
Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care for patients with heart disease and the diagnosis, management and treatment of atrial fibrillation. You will appreciate timely appointments and a professional, friendly atmosphere where we take time to listen to your concerns. At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.
Signs and Symptoms
Talk to your physician if you experience irregular heartbeat symptoms including:
- Palpitations – a feeling of skipped heartbeats or fluttering
- Pounding in your chest
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or tightness
- Weakness or fatigue
The frequency with which symptoms occur varies considerably:
- Occasional symptoms: Symptoms occur intermittently, for undetermined lengths of time.
- Persistent symptoms: Once occurring, symptoms continue without change. Medical treatment is required to restore a healthy heart rhythm.
- Long-standing persistent symptoms: These symptoms occur without cessation, for 12 months or more.
- Permanent symptoms: Permanent symptoms mean that a healthy heart rhythm cannot be restored.
If you experience the symptoms of atrial fibrillation, see your physician. If these symptoms are serious, including chest pain, seek emergency medical care.
AFib symptoms may go unnoticed. If they are not detected, risk increases for developing permanent AFib, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related conditions. It is important to have regular physical exams to detect AFib early.
To determine if a patient has AFib, we use advanced technology to effectively diagnose, inform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. Procedures for Atrial Fibrillation diagnosis can include:
- Electrocardiogram (EKG): This test measures the electrical activity of the heart and can help determine if parts of the heart are enlarged or overworked. The heart’s electrical currents are detected by 12 to 15 electrodes that are attached to the arms, legs and chest via sticky tape.
The most common cause of AFib is damaged or abnormal heart structures. Additionally, the following can cause atrial fibrillation to occur:
- Alcohol consumption; and binge drinking further increases risk
- Caffeine consumption
- Coronary artery disease (blockage in the arteries)
- High blood pressure
- Overactive thyroid or a metabolic imbalance
- Stimulant medication
- Tobacco use
Atrial Fibrillation Risk Factors
Atrial fibrillation risk factors include:
- Age: People older than age 60 have a higher risk of AFib.
- Family history. People with a family history of AFib tend to develop the condition more frequently than those without family history of the condition.
- Heart conditions: People with congenital heart defects, previous heart attack or heart disease are at higher risk for developing AFib.
- Serious illness or infection: Kidney disease, chronic lung disease and pneumonia increase the risk of AFib.
- Sleep apnea: People with sleep apnea have a higher risk of developing AFib.
While some risk factors like age and heredity cannot be controlled, you can lower atrial fibrillation risk factors as follows:
- Practice good heart health: Watch what you eat, exercise and avoid smoking.
- Avoid triggers: Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, certain cold and cough medications, appetite suppressants, beta blockers and psychotropic drugs. Ask your physician for a list of these triggers.
- Take your medications as prescribed: Be sure to take medication to control your AFib as prescribed. If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, check with your physician to ensure you’re taking the best medications to manage each condition.
- Be careful with supplements: Tell your physician about any vitamins or supplements you’re taking to be sure they don’t interact with treatment medications.
- Manage your stress: Managing your stress levels is important to keep your heart healthy.
- Lose extra weight: If you are overweight or obese, you are more at risk for developing AFib.
- Get regular checkups: And, if you experience new or changing symptoms or side effects from medications, see your physician.
Prognosis can be good if an atrial fibrillation treatment plan is followed, even for people with permanent AFib. However, if the treatment plan is not followed, blood clots can form and can cause a stroke, heart failure or other heart-related conditions.
Is AFib Life Threatening?
Atrial fibrillation is a serious condition but not usually life-threatening (with regular AFib treatment). However, emergency treatment may sometimes be required. AFib can be dangerous for those with other conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
Atrial Fibrillation Treatment
Atrial fibrillation treatment varies by the severity of the irregular heartbeat symptoms, and if you have heart disease. Atrial fibrillation treatment options can include:
Healthy lifestyle changes
Watch what you eat, exercise, lose excess weight and avoid smoking.
Various types of medication can help control your heart rate or restore its normal heart rhythm. Your physician may prescribe a low dose to start and gradually increase it until symptoms are controlled. Medications may include those that control heart rate or heart rhythm. IN addition, you may be prescribed blood-thinning medications to help prevent blood clots from forming that can lead to a stroke. Regular blood tests will be needed to see if your blood thinner is working well.
Your physician can use various procedures to help your heart rhythm return to normal:
- Cardioversion: Low-energy shocks flow to your heart through paddles or patches on your chest. The current affects the electrical impulses and can restore a normal rhythm. A transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) may be ordered beforehand to rule out the presence of blood clots.
- Transesophageal echocardiography (TEE): A thin tube sent through mouth, down the throat and into the esophagus, near the upper chambers of the heart, produces sound waves for clear pictures of your heart and blood vessels connected to it.
- Catheter ablation: One or more catheters will be threaded through blood vessels to your heart. Electrodes at the catheter tips use heat, extreme cold or radiofrequency energy to damage (ablate) a small spot of heart tissue and create an electrical block along the pathway that’s causing atrial fibrillation.
Atrial Fibrillation Complications
Atrial fibrillation symptoms that are mild don’t cause complications. However, severe, and even life-threatening, complications can occur, such as:
Stroke: Small blood clots can form in the heart. If these clots break loose and move through the bloodstream to the brain, they could cause a stroke. The risk of stroke increases with age and whether other cardiovascular risk factors for stroke are present, such as high blood pressure.
Congestive heart failure: If heart rhythm is abnormal for an extended period of time, the heart muscle may become weak and unable to pump blood efficiently throughout the body.
Can AFib Go Away?
AFib can resolve on its own, or AFib can be permanent and require ongoing treatment.
Next Steps with MyChart
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