Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a condition that disrupts your heartbeat. A glitch in the heart’s electrical system makes its upper chambers (the atria) beat so fast they quiver, or fibrillate. This causes the lower chambers (the ventricles) to beat out of sync.
Usually the atria and ventricles work together so the heart pumps blood in steady rhythm. But in AFib, they don’t. The irregular beats can cause a fast, fluttering heart rate — 100-175 beats per minute — instead of the normal 60-100 beats per minute.
AFib can be dangerous because it raises your risk of stroke and heart failure.
Atrial Fibrillation: Warning Signs
For many people, AFib doesn’t cause obvious symptoms. But when there are, they’ll often include:
- An uneven pulse
- A racing or pounding heart
- A feeling that your heart is fluttering
- Chest pain
- Feeling short of breath
- Lightheaded or dizziness
Atrial Fibrillation: Effects
When your heart is in AFib, your blood doesn’t move well throughout your body. You may feel:
- Dizzy or faint
- Weak and fatigued
AFib isn’t always a cause for alarm. But you should call 911 if you have:
- Severe chest pain
- Uneven pulse and feel faint
- Signs of a stroke, such as numbness or slurred speech
And let your doctor know whenever something doesn’t feel right.
Atrial Fibrillation: Greater Risk of Stroke
When your heart isn’t pumping like it should, the slow-moving blood can pool inside, which makes it easier for clots to form. If that happens, and a clot travels through the bloodstream to your brain and gets stuck, you could have a stroke. People with AFib are five times more likely to have one.
Atrial Fibrillation: Causes
The most common triggers are conditions that strain your heart, including:
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease and heart attacks
- Heart failure
- Problems with heart valves
Sometimes, AFib may be set off by thyroid disorders or serious infections like pneumonia.
Atrial Fibrillation: Triggers You Can Control
It’s also been linked to things you can do something about:
- Being overweight or obese
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Using stimulants, including some illegal drugs
- Taking certain prescription drugs, such as albuterol
Atrial Fibrillation: Diagnosis
The way to confirm AFib is with an electrocardiogram (EKG). The machine detects and records the electrical activity of your heart, so your doctor can see problems with its rhythm. You can do it in the doctor’s office, or you may need to wear a device that keeps track of your heart’s activity for a longer time to catch an episode. The device can be worn from 24 hours to 2 weeks, and sometimes longer.
An echocardiogram or ultrasound can show valve damage or signs of heart failure. A stress test can reveal how well your heart does when it’s working hard.
Atrial Fibrillation: Treatments
Your doctor may try to restore a normal heart rhythm with electric shock or medication. But if you’ve been having AFib for more than 48 hours, the procedure could increase your chance of a stroke. You may need to take a medicine called a blood thinner for several weeks before your doctor tries cardioversion, as well as afterward.
If your symptoms are mild, or if AFib comes back after cardioversion, you may be able to control it with medicine. Rhythm-control drugs help keep the pattern of your heartbeat steady. Rate-control medications keep your heart from beating too fast.
Daily aspirin or drugs called anticoagulents or blood thinners can help prevent clots and lower some people’s chances of having a stroke.
Atrial Fibrillation: Ablation
A doctor feeds a small probe through a blood vessel to your heart and uses radiofrequency energy, a laser, or intense cold to zap the tissue that sends out the bad signals. Although you won’t need open heart surgery, the procedure has some risks. It’s only for people who have serious symptoms that cardioversion and medications haven’t helped.
Atrial Fibrillation: Pacemaker
A small, battery-powered device can send out electrical signals to control your heart rate. It can help people whose hearts beat very slowly. And it can relieve symptoms like fatigue and breathlessness. You may need one after ablation, depending where the tissue was.
Getting a pacemaker put in your chest is considered minor surgery, and it usually takes about an hour.
Atrial Fibrillation: Prevention
The same healthy habits that protect against heart disease will protect you against AFib:
- Eat a nutritious diet that includes fish.
- Exercise regularly.
- Control your blood pressure.
- Don’t smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke.
- Decrease or avoid alcohol.
Atrial Fibrillation: Check Your Pulse Monthly
AFib can lead to a stroke or another serious problem before it causes symptoms you’ll notice. To catch an irregular heartbeat early, the National Stroke Association recommends you check your pulse once a month, especially if you’re over 40 or have other risk factors for stroke. If your rhythm seems unsteady or you have any concerns, call your doctor.