Atrial fibrillation is a common type of arrhythmia, considered a serious medical condition of the heart.
Atrial fibrillation occurs when the two upper chambers of the heart beat out of sync with the two lower chambers. This often results in a rapid heartbeat. Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common type of arrhythmia – a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat.
The upper chambers of the heart are referred to as the left atrium and right atrium (plural – atria). The bottom chambers are the left and right ventricles. During a normal heart beat cycle, an electric signal spreads from the atria to the ventricles causing the heart to contract and pump blood. When AF occurs, blood pools in the atria, causing the upper and lower chambers to beat out of sync.
Atrial fibrillation is not typically a life threatening disorder and it can be controlled with medication, but it should be considered a serious medical condition because it can lead to complications including chest pain, stroke and heart failure.
Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms
Atrial fibrillation may be a chronic condition for some, but only an occasional occurrence for others. Many people who experience AF may have no noticeable symptoms and are unaware they have the disorder until it is detected on a physical exam.
The most common symptom of Atrial Fibrillation is a rapid heartbeat, which is more than 140 beats per minute.
Other common symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Atrial Fibrillation Causes
Atrial fibrillation causes the atria of the heart to experience irregular electrical signals, but what causes this to occur? Atrial fibrillation can be an age-related condition, but more commonly, Atrial fibrillation is caused by damage resulting from other conditions that affect the heart. In a small number of cases, the underlying cause is never found.
Conditions that can cause atrial fibrillation:
- High blood pressure
- Sleep apnea
- Heart attack
- Overactive thyroid gland
- Previous heart surgery
- Excessive caffeine intake
- Congenital heart disease
- Sick sinus syndrome
- Viral infections
Atrial Fibrillation Treatment
Before creating a treatment plan for atrial fibrillation, doctors will work to determine the cause; although in some cases the root cause is never found. Often, when the underlying disorder is treated, the abnormal heartbeat goes away on its own. Other treatment options include medication, surgical procedures, and lifestyle changes.
The primary goal in treating Atrial Fibrillation is to reduce blood clotting. When blood pools in the atria, a blood clot may form. If one breaks off and travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke. Patients may be given blood-thinning medication to prevent blood clotting including warfarin, aspirin and heparin.
Restoring Regular Heart Rate
Next, doctors will concentrate on restoring the regular heart rate. This can be done with medication and/or surgical procedures.
Medication: Calcium channel blockers, beta blockers, digoxin, ACE inhibitors and other blood pressure-lowering medication may be given.
Procedures: Atrioventricular (AV) node ablation – Radiofrequency energy via a catheter is used to destroy a small area of tissue. After the procedure, a pacemaker is inserted just under the skin to restore normal rhythm.
Restoring Regular Heart Rhythm
If a patient is not responding to rate control, doctors will try and restore the rhythm. However, due to the recurrence of AF, particularly in older patients and patients who have untreated underlying health issues, a normal rhythm may never be completely restored.
Medications: Atenolol, bisoprolol, amiodarone and flecainide, to name a few.
Procedures: Electrical cardioversion – Under sedation, special paddles are used to give the heart an electrical shock, stopping it momentarily. When the heart restarts again, the hope is that normal rhythm will have returned.
Atrial Fibrillation Prevention
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help prevent atrial fibrillation from recurring after treatment.
Although a small number of atrial fibrillation cases will be diagnosed with no clear underlying cause, living a healthy lifestyle can help prevent the condition.
- No smoking
- Eat a heart-healthy diet to lower your cholesterol
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Limit or avoid alcohol
To prevent the recurrence of atrial fibrillation:
- Reduce caffeine
- Avoid medication containing stimulants, like pseudoephedrine.
Atrial Fibrillation Resources
Learn where to find resources and support for A-Fib, or atrial fibrillation.