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March 2020

What You Should Know About Atrial Fibrillation

 

“Her heart fluttered with excitement.” “He felt his heart skip a beat.” “Her heart was racing as fast as her thoughts.”      

These well-worn phrases describe sensations that nearly everyone has felt. And for most people, an occasional skip or flutter of the heart is nothing to worry about. But for those with an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation (AF), these sensations may indicate serious health risks. 

What is atrial fibrillation?

A normal heartbeat begins with an electrical signal. The signal tells the two upper chambers—the atria—to contract first. This is followed by contraction of the ventricles, the two lower chambers.

In people with AF, the electrical signal is fired irregularly. The atria quiver and the heartbeat loses its rhythm. This can cause blood to pool in the heart and form clots. Sometimes, these blood clots can lead to stroke.

Risk factors and symptoms

AF is the most common of heartbeat abnormalities, affecting at least 2.7 million Americans.         

As you get older, you are more likely to develop AF. Other risk factors include:

  • Heart disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart attack

  • Recent heart surgery

  • An overactive thyroid

  • Smoking or heavy alcohol use     

In many cases, AF has no symptoms and is only discovered when you get a physical exam. When symptoms do occur, they may include chest pain, sensations of a racing or fluttering heartbeat, dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

Treatment options

If you are diagnosed with AF, your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine, such as digitalis, beta-blockers, or calcium channel blockers. You may also need a blood-thinning medicine to help prevent blood clots and reduce your risk for stroke.         

One type of surgical treatment is the implantable cardioverter defibrillator. Placed inside the chest or abdomen, this small device detects heartbeat irregularities and sends a shock to restore the heart’s rhythm. Other surgical options include implanting a pacemaker or destroying the heart tissue that is causing the irregularity.       

Lifestyle measures also can help manage atrial fibrillation. These include not smoking and limiting or avoiding alcohol.

 

Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2019
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