A woman holding her heart.
Heart and Vascular

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Sep 16 2021

Atrial fibrillation is a common heart condition. More than 454,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized for it each year.

Although it can seem harmless when it’s first developing, it can lead to heart failure, stroke, blood clots and other heart-related problems if it’s not treated. Find out what the symptoms of this condition are so you can prevent further problems.

First of all, what is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat, or an arrhythmia. It is the most common type of heart arrhythmia. Your heart might beat too fast, too slow or in an uneven rhythm. The condition is also called AFib or AF.

AFib happens when the beating in the upper chambers of your heart is off pace with the beating of the lower chambers. Instead of a smooth beat, your heart quivers.

When you have an irregular heartbeat like this, the blood doesn’t flow like it should to the lower chambers of the heart. This can lead to some serious health conditions if untreated.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

The exact cause of AFib is not yet known, but some health conditions lead to the development of AFib. These include:

  • An existing heart defect
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Lung disease
  • Pneumonia
  • Previous heart surgery
  • Sleep apnea
  • Thyroid issues
  • Viral infections

Are there risk factors for atrial fibrillation?

The older you are, the greater your risk of atrial fibrillation. People who have high blood pressure are also at a higher risk for getting the condition.

Here are some additional risk factors for developing AFib:

  • Age over 60 years old
  • Alcohol use
  • Chronic medical conditions, such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes, heart failure, high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism, ischemic heart disease
  • Enlarged chambers of the left side of your heart
  • European descent
  • Family history of AFib
  • History of sleep apnea
  • Obesity
  • Smoking

What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

The main symptom you may feel with AFib is an unusually strong or irregular heartbeat. You might feel like your heart is quivering or skipping beats. Or, sometimes it feels like your heart is doing flip flops or banging against your chest.

You might also have some of these symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Fast heart rate
  • Intolerance to exercise
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness

Sometimes, people with AF don’t experience any symptoms at all. This is why it’s important to have regular check-ups with your primary care provider so they can help detect warning signs.

If you have atrial fibrillation, what symptoms should you go to the hospital for?

Any time you feel your heart beating strangely or you have chest pain, let your doctor know right away.  You should go to the emergency room if your symptoms last 24 hours or your symptoms get worse.

Whenever you feel like you’re having the symptoms of a stroke or heart attack, call 911 immediately. More specifically, if you have any of the following symptoms, go to the emergency room right away:

  • Chest pain that lasts more than five to 10 minutes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling cold and clammy
  • Feeling like you will pass out
  • Feeling very weak

Are there treatment options for atrial fibrillation?

It’s important to treat AFib. If you don’t, your risk of having a heart-related death doubles. You’re also at a five-times higher risk of having a stroke. AFib causes one out of every seven strokes.

Proper atrial fibrillation management can include:

  • Ablation surgery that freezes areas of heart tissue causing AFib
  • Blood thinners to prevent blood clots
  • Brief electrical shock to reset the rhythm of your heart
  • Heart catheter
  • Medications that can help normalize your heart rate and rhythm
  • Weight loss surgery
  • A healthier lifestyle

And finally, are there things you can do to avoid atrial fibrillation?

The best way to avoid developing AFib is to lead a healthy lifestyle. This includes:

  • Drinking little or no alcohol
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Exercising daily
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Learn more about the cardiology and primary care services we offer at Bon Secours.

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