Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment Options | For More Information

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common heart rhythm disorder in the United States, with an estimated 3 million Americans living with this condition. AF causes the heart to beat irregularly due to twitching, or fibrillating, of the top chambers known as the atria. This action usually results in a heart that beats at an unusually fast and irregular pace. Although not inherently life threatening on its own, AF may lead to poor circulation and pooling of blood in the atria that significantly increases the chances of clot formation and ultimately, stroke.

While AF can affect people of all ages, prevalence of the disease rises as we grow older. The condition most often develops in those over age 65. Atrial flutter (a-flutter) is another arrhythmia similar to AF that produces a slightly more organized but still abnormal heart beat. Often easier to treat than AF, atrial flutter remains a potentially serious disease that puts patients at high risk for stroke. Both conditions may be caused by:

  • Alcohol use
  • Thyroid disease
  • Organic heart disorders
  • Lung disease

These conditions can be caused by many other factors, or your heart’s electrical system may be misfiring for simply no known reason at all.

At the NorthShore Cardiovascular Institute, we have long been recognized as pioneers in the treatment and management of this challenging heart disorder. Our highly integrated approach streamlines the delivery of state-of-the-art therapeutic treatments to our patients through a highly skilled team of cardiologists, cardiovascular surgeons, nurse practitioners and technologists. Involved in advancing therapies for this common condition, our investigators are leading exciting clinical trials that make available cutting-edge AF treatments to our community.


Atrial fibrillation often reveals itself through symptoms such as:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Fast pulse rate
  • Sensation of “fluttering” or skipped heart beats
  • Light headedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness

However, a significant number of patients don’t exhibit symptoms at all. Very often their AF is discovered serendipitously either through an electrocardiogram or other diagnostic test or a general physical exam.


NorthShore’s multidisciplinary atrial fibrillation program encompasses all the latest diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to this disorder. Early diagnosis provides the best chances for effectively managing your AF and reducing your risk of debilitating stroke. During your evaluation, one of our experienced board-certified cardiologists will ask you about your medical history and conduct a physical exam. Your NorthShore AF specialist may also recommend one of several non-invasive diagnostic procedures, including EKGs and echocardiograms (ultrasound exams).

Your physician may employ sophisticated heart monitoring devices to provide additional diagnostic information. These devices can record your heart rhythms over time from one full day to weeks and even months as you go about your daily activities.

In some cases, more invasive testing may be required to complete your evaluation and treatment, including cardiac electrophysiology or ablation procedures to track down the electrical malfunction in your heart that is causing the arrhythmia and correct it. Available at NorthShore, this advanced diagnostic tool involves the insertion of a special electrode catheter into a blood vessel leading to the heart to pinpoint the source of your disorganized heart rhythm.

Treatment Options

Your NorthShore Cardiovascular Institute team will develop a personalized treatment plan for your atrial fibrillation depending on your unique needs and the specific nature of your condition. Because we work in a collaborative multispecialty environment, you can be assured that your care will be both seamless and all encompassing.

Early treatment of atrial fibrillation usually starts with medications to restore a more normal heart rate. Anticoagulation drugs also may be used to reduce the potential for blood clotting that could lead to stroke.

One option for “rebooting” your heart’s normal rhythm is cardioversion, a procedure that uses an electric shock. Other options include radiofrequency ablation and cryoabalation that rely on hot and cold energy, respectively, to selectively destroy the cells causing the arrhythmia.

At NorthShore, our experienced cardiac electrophysiologists and cardiovascular surgeons perform various minimally-invasive surgical procedures to treat AF. These options include:

  • Advanced device therapies. The catheter-based insertion of occluding devices into the chambers of the heart can help to prevent blood clotting and subsequently, stroke.
  • Hybrid Maze procedure. This less-invasive catheter ablation technique allows patients to avoid the traditional open heart surgery, or Maze technique, for treating AF. Similar to the goal of radiofrequency ablation, the hybrid Maze procedure works to eliminate heart tissue causing abnormal electrical signals by creating scar lines in and around the heart.

A regional research center for the international CABANA (Catheter-Ablation versus Antiarrhythmic Drug Therapy for Atrial Fibrillation) trial, NorthShore is committed to providing the most effective therapies for our patients with atrial fibrillation.

For More Information

Please call 847.570.2250 for more information on atrial fibrillation or to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists.

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