Information - Atrial Fibrillation
What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common type of arrhythmia, affecting approximately one percent of the population. If you have atrial fibrillation, the atria no longer contracts efficiently, so blood stays in the chambers of the heart longer. As a result, clots can form and enter the bloodstream; if a clot travels to a brain artery, it can cause a stroke.
When the heart is in atrial fibrillation, the electrical impulses in the two atria (upper chambers of the heart) are conducted very irregularly and quickly (up to 400 impulses per minute). The ventricles (lower chambers of the heart) also contract irregularly as a result (between 80 and 180 times per minute).
The irregular heart rate can prevent the heart from working properly and efficiently transporting blood to your other organs.
Causes/Risk Factors of Atrial Fibrillation
It’s not always possible for doctors to find an exact cause of arrhythmia. In this case, it’s referred to as isolated atrial fibrillation.
The most common causes of atrial fibrillation include:
- High blood pressure
- Angina or infarction
- Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid)
- Sleep apnea
- A severe infection
- Recent heart surgery
- Heart muscle or valve defects
Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms
While no two patients experience the same atrial fibrillation symptoms, the most common one is chest palpitations. Other atrial fibrillation symptoms include shortness of breath and dizziness.
Atrial Fibrillation Diagnosis
Some patients are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation during a routine health exam, while others seek medical care because of heart palpitations. Your physician can prescribe tests to confirm an atrial fibrillation diagnosis and cause. These tests include:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG)
- Event ECG recording
- Holter monitoring
- Stress test
Atrial Fibrillation Treatment
It’s not enough to just treat atrial fibrillation; it’s important to prevent clots from forming.
Atrial fibrillation treatment involves:
Controlling rhythm to re-establish and maintain normal (sinus) rhythm. To accomplish this, medication will generally be administered intravenously. Electrical cardioversion is another treatment method that involves putting a patient under anesthesia and then administering an electric current to the chest. Patients will typically be prescribed long-term medication to decrease the recurrence of atrial fibrillation with either treatment method.
Controlling heart rate to slow your heartbeat. To slow the heartbeat to a normal speed, your physician will likely prescribe long-term medication to reduce symptoms.
Your physician will determine whether controlling rhythm or rate is the right treatment for you, depending on a number of factors, including:
- Duration, cause and symptoms of atrial fibrillation
- Number of previous episodes
- Past medications
You may need to try more than one medication before you find the right atrial fibrillation treatment. Occasionally, a patient will undergo an ablation, which involves inserting catheters into the heart to locate diseased areas, then removing tissue from the atria—either by electrical energy or the application of intense cold.
To prevent clot formation, your doctor will determine if a blood thinner is necessary and consider a number of factors before prescribing medication, including:
- How long you’ll take the medication for
- Your age and sex
- The risk of bleeding
- The cause of your atrial fibrillation
- Any related diseases like diabetes or hypertension
Managing Atrial Fibrillation
To prevent the onset of arrhythmia episodes, it’s important to:
- Avoid or limit alcohol consumption
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking over-the-counter medications, which may interact with prescribed medication or contain stimulants that trigger atrial fibrillation
For more information on atrial fibrillation, visit HealthChoicesFirst.com.
Print this Action Plan and check off items that you want to discuss with your healthcare provider
The goal of atrial fibrillation treatment is to restore your normal heart rate and rhythm and prevent blood clots.
Rate control slows down the heartbeat to make it less rapid and less irregular.
Rhythm control involves treatments to get the heart back to beating normally.
Ablation can be a very effective atrial fibrillation treatment, but it isn’t for all patients.
Cardioversion uses small, very safe electrical shocks to the heart to restore a normal rapid heartbeat.