Atrial Fibrillation

What is atrial fibrillation?

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Atrial fibrillation is a condition that interrupts blood flow. This is the most common type of heart arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. The condition affects the two upper atria, or chambers of the heart, and can disrupt blood flow to other parts of the heart and throughout the body. This causes the heart to beat faster than normal. A relatively common condition, atrial fibrillation affects between 3 and 6 million Americans.

This condition, known colloquially as AFib, can be acute or chronic, developing over a person’s life or occurring temporarily. There are four types of atrial fibrillation: paroxysmal, persistent, long-term persistent, and permanent. The type of AFib a person has depends on how often the arrhythmia occurs.

The condition presents most frequently in adults over the age of 65. When left untreated, the condition can be deadly. However, with proper maintenance, consistent medical care, and healthy habits, people with atrial fibrillation can live normal lives.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

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When a person has atrial fibrillation, the two upper chambers of the heart beat out of coordination with the lower two chambers. This phenomenon increases an individual’s risk of cardiovascular event, like blood clots, heart failure, and other complications.

Atrial fibrillation is caused by changes to heart tissue and the electrical signals that create a heartbeat. When this is damaged, blood pumping can become irregular. High blood pressure, ischemic heart disease, and other heart conditions can cause atrial fibrillation. Additionally, heart tissue can break down as a person ages, further contributing to the conditions necessary to cause this condition.

People with varied heart shapes, or hearts that have slight anatomical differences, may also experience atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias more often. Irregular heart shapes can cause premature or extra heartbeats, periods of faster or slower beating, and irregular tissue development.

Are there any atrial fibrillation risk factors?

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Like many cardiovascular conditions, many atrial fibrillation risk factors are tied to a person’s age. As an individual ages, tissues can begin to break down naturally, causing damage around the body. However, age is also a major contributor to other AFib risk factors. If you have one or more of the following conditions or fit into any of the following groups, you have a higher chance of developing atrial fibrillation.

  • Diabetes
  • History of heart failure
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • History of smoking tobacco
  • Enlarged heart chambers, especially on the left side
  • Moderate to heavy alcohol use

Additionally, if someone in your family has had atrial fibrillation, you are at a higher risk of developing the condition. Some mutated genes may also affect the heart and cause AFib. If you have just undergone heart, lung, or esophageal surgery, you will have a temporarily increased risk for atrial fibrillation.

Interestingly, competitive athletes and those who participate in endurance sports may have a higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation. In most cases, cardiovascular conditions arise from inactive lifestyles, and moderate physical activity can contribute to disease prevention. However, excessive exertion can contribute to developing an arrhythmia. Talk to your doctor about what level of physical activity is right for your heart and body.

What are atrial fibrillation symptoms?

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Atrial fibrillation symptoms are consistent with other types of cardiovascular conditions. The most common include fatigue and angina. However, you may also experience any of the following.

  • Difficulty breathing, especially when lying down
  • Low blood pressure
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Confusion
  • A decreased tolerance for exercise

Unfortunately, many of these symptoms may be confused for a separate condition, like general anxiety disorder. If you experience symptoms, be sure to note when they occur and whether they change over time. This information can be helpful to a doctor during a physical exam.

How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?

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If you are experiencing atrial fibrillation symptoms, visit a doctor as soon as possible. A physician will perform a physical exam and receive your medical and family history. If the doctor suspects a positive diagnosis, they will likely perform a range of tests, including those designed to measure pulse, blood pressure, and breathing capacity. An electrocardiogram, or EKG, may also be administered to test the electrical impulses in the heart. If arrhythmia does not occur during any of these tests, your doctor may suggest any of the following follow-up diagnostic procedures.

  • Echocardiogram, which can produce a moving image of the heart
  • Holter monitor, which allows the patient to monitor their heart for 24-48 hours while wearing a portable device
  • Stress test, which monitors the heart during exercise
  • Chest X-ray, which can be used to examine the heart and lungs

Is there an atrial fibrillation treatment?

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Most atrial fibrillation treatment focuses on lifestyle changes designed to reduce the risk of a cardiac event. Eating heart-healthy foods, getting physical activity, managing stress, and quitting smoking are all part of a comprehensive atrial fibrillation treatment strategy. Additionally, maintaining a healthy weight and reducing or eliminating alcohol intake can significantly improve a person’s prognosis.

In chronic cases, doctors may prescribe atrial fibrillation medications or procedures to help manage the condition. Medications will typically include beta-blockers, blood thinners, and calcium channel blockers, all of which can reduce the risk of blood clots and stroke. Digitalis, or digoxin, may also be used to control heartrate, but many doctors are hesitant to prescribe this as it can cause other types of arrhythmia.

When lifestyle changes and medications do not work, you may need a surgical procedure. Pacemaker implantation can reduce atrial fibrillation. Catheter ablation can help destroy the tissue causing the arrhythmia, and an electrical cardioversion can restore the heart to a normal rhythm. Talk to your doctor about procedures that may work for you and your health.

What are common complications from atrial fibrillation?

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Depending on your overall health and the type of atrial fibrillation you have, some dangerous complications may arise from the condition. Below, we’ve outlined a few of the most common severe complications.

  • Heart Attack: Damage to heart tissue and inconsistent blood pumping can increase a person’s risk of developing a heart attack. With AFib, women are at the highest risk of experiencing a heart attack as an atrial fibrillation complication.
  • Blood Clot: When the heart is unable to pump blood properly, the substance can pool within the organ. This can create an abnormal blood clot. If a piece of this embolus breaks off, it can travel to different parts of the body. A blood clot can affect the brain, lungs, kidneys, intestine, or spleen. If an embolus travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke.
  • Sudden Cardiac Arrest: Some types of arrhythmia, including AFib, can cause an increased risk of sudden cardiac arrest. This occurs when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating.
  • Cognitive Impairment: Some studies suggest that atrial fibrillation can cause dementia and other types of cognitive impairment. This may be the result of blockages to blood vessels, which can cause reduced blood flow to the brain.

Are there any strategies for atrial fibrillation prevention?

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The only way to prevent atrial fibrillation is to adapt lifestyle choices that can prevent underlying conditions. This includes eating a healthy, well-rounded diet, getting regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight. If you are predisposed to developing AFib, seeking cardiologist help preemptively can also help slow the onset of symptoms.

People living with atrial fibrillation diagnoses should see a cardiologist for regular check-ups. You may receive additional EKG tests, stress tests, and blood tests to better understand how your body reacts to certain AFib treatments. If your arrhythmia is temporary or sporadic, you will likely benefit from lifestyle changes associated with healthy cardiovascular health. In all cases, however, if you experience symptoms, you should visit a doctor as soon as possible. Constant heart maintenance is the best way to stay healthy while living with atrial fibrillation.