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Atrial fibrillation (say "AY-tree-uhl fih-bruh-LAY-shun") is a common type of irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Normally, the heart beats in a regular, steady rhythm. In atrial fibrillation, a problem with the heart's electrical system causes the two upper chambers of the heart (called the atria) to quiver, or fibrillate.
An episode of atrial fibrillation is not usually dangerous. But this condition can lead to problems. This is because blood can collect, or pool, in your heart if the heartbeat isn't regular and steady. And pooled blood is more likely to form clots. Clots can travel to the brain, block blood flow, and cause a stroke. Atrial fibrillation can also lead to heart failure.
This condition also upsets the normal rhythm between the atria and the lower chambers of the heart. (These chambers are called the ventricles.) The ventricles may beat fast and without a regular rhythm.
Atrial fibrillation is caused by health problems that damage or strain the heart and its electrical system. These problems include high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and heart failure. Other causes include heart surgery, lung disease, or an overactive thyroid gland.
Some people feel symptoms when they have episodes of atrial fibrillation. But other people don't notice any symptoms. There are a few different symptoms, such as feeling dizzy, tired, or short of breath. Some people feel a fluttering, racing, or pounding feeling in their chest (called palpitations).
To see if you have atrial fibrillation, you will have an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). An EKG is a test that checks for problems with the heart's electrical activity. Your doctor will do a physical exam. You may have other tests that check the health of your heart.
Treatments can help you feel better and prevent future problems, especially stroke and heart failure.
Your treatment may depend on the cause of your atrial fibrillation, your symptoms, your risk for stroke, and your preferences. Types of treatment include:
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Atrial fibrillation is caused by a problem with the heart's electrical system. When something goes wrong with this system, it's usually because of other health problems that are causing wear and tear on the heart or making it hard for the heart to do its job.
Conditions that damage or strain the heart are the most common causes of atrial fibrillation. These include:
Other possible causes include:
In some cases, doctors can't find the cause of atrial fibrillation.
A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of getting sick or having a problem. Risk factors for atrial fibrillation include:
Other things that can increase the risk for atrial fibrillation include:
Some people feel symptoms when they have episodes of atrial fibrillation. But other people don't notice any symptoms.
If you have symptoms, you may feel:
You may notice signs of atrial fibrillation when you check your pulse. Your pulse may seem uneven or fast.
At first, episodes of atrial fibrillation may come on suddenly and last a short time. It may go away on its own or with treatment. Over time, the episodes may last longer and occur more often. They often don't go away on their own. During these episodes, you may feel symptoms such as palpitations, dizziness, or weakness.
An episode of atrial fibrillation is not usually dangerous. But this condition can lead to problems. This is because blood can collect, or pool, in your heart if the heartbeat isn't regular and steady. And pooled blood is more likely to form clots. Clots can travel to the brain, block blood flow, and cause a stroke. A fast, uncontrolled heartbeat also increases your risk for heart failure.
Treating atrial fibrillation is important, because treatment can relieve symptoms and lower your risk of stroke and heart failure.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you:
If you see someone pass out, call 911 or other emergency services immediately.
Call your doctor if you have:
If you take blood-thinning medicine, watch for signs of bleeding.
Call your doctor now if you have any unusual bleeding, such as:
To see if you have atrial fibrillation, you will have an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). An EKG is a test that checks for problems with the heart's electrical activity.
Your doctor will probably ask questions about your past health and do a physical exam.
Other tests your doctor may recommend include:
Some people also use wearable devices or smartphone devices to check their heart rate and rhythm. These devices may be able to check for atrial fibrillation. But the results need to be confirmed by a doctor.
Treatments for atrial fibrillation can help you feel better and prevent future problems, especially stroke and heart failure. Your treatment may depend on the cause of your atrial fibrillation, your symptoms, your risk for stroke, and your preferences.
The main types of treatment will:
You can also help manage atrial fibrillation by having a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Atrial fibrillation caused by a condition that is treatable, such as hyperthyroidism, may go away when that condition is treated.
Rate-control medicines are used if your heart rate is too fast. They usually don't return your heart to a normal rhythm, so your heartbeat will still be irregular. But these medicines can keep your heart from beating at a fast rate.
These medicines may also relieve symptoms.
Treatment to control your heart rhythm is done to try to stop atrial fibrillation and keep it from returning. It may also help your symptoms. Treatments include:
This procedure, which is done with a thin tube called a catheter, destroys tiny areas in the heart that cause atrial fibrillation. Ablation can relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
AV node ablation is another type of catheter ablation. It does not stop atrial fibrillation, but it can relieve symptoms.
Your doctor can help you know your risk of a stroke based on your age and health. This information can help you and your doctor decide how to lower your risk.
You can live well and help manage atrial fibrillation by having a heart-healthy lifestyle.
A heart-healthy lifestyle includes healthy eating, staying at a weight that is healthy for you, getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, being active, and not smoking.
These healthy habits may help reduce how often you have episodes of atrial fibrillation. Regular physical activity may help relieve symptoms. If you are overweight, losing weight can also help relieve symptoms.
Many people are able to live full and active lives with atrial fibrillation. Most people don't have to change their daily activities.
You can live well and help manage atrial fibrillation by having a heart-healthy lifestyle, taking medicine properly, and managing other health problems. You can work with your doctor to help manage your symptoms.
A heart-healthy lifestyle can help keep your heart as healthy as possible. It may also help reduce how often you have episodes of atrial fibrillation. If you are overweight, losing weight can help relieve symptoms. Regular physical activity may also help relieve symptoms.
To have a heart-healthy lifestyle:
Taking medicine can help you feel better and prevent future problems.
Manage other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
Know the signs of sleep apnea. Tell your doctor if you have symptoms such as snoring and feeling sleepy during the day. Many people with atrial fibrillation also have sleep apnea.
Avoid infections such as COVID-19, colds, and the flu. Get the flu vaccine every year. Get a pneumococcal vaccine. If you have had one before, ask your doctor whether you need another dose. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.
Talk with your doctor if you think you have a problem with alcohol or drug use. This includes prescription medicines (such as amphetamines and opioids) and illegal drugs (such as cocaine and methamphetamine).
Treatments for atrial fibrillation can relieve symptoms. But managing symptoms, or episodes, can be easier for some people than others. That's because some people only have mild symptoms, and they learn how to deal with them. But other people can struggle and they feel like their episodes are controlling their lives.
Work with your doctor to treat your symptoms. Tell your doctor how symptoms affect your life. Your doctor can help you find ways to manage episodes.
There are a few things you can try. They include:
If you have atrial fibrillation, you may take medicine to help prevent a stroke. You may also take medicine that slows your heart rate or controls your heart rhythm.
Anticoagulant medicines, also called blood thinners, are recommended for most people with atrial fibrillation who are at average to high risk of stroke.
If you are at low risk of having a stroke, you may choose to not take an anticoagulant.
Anticoagulant choices include:
Rate-control medicines are used if your heart rate is too fast. The medicine slows your heart rate.
These medicines include:
Rate-control medicines may relieve symptoms caused by the fast heart rate. But these medicines may not relieve other symptoms caused by atrial fibrillation.
Rhythm-control medicines (also known as antiarrhythmics) help return the heart to its normal rhythm and keep atrial fibrillation from returning. They may help relieve symptoms caused by an irregular heart rate.
Current as of: June 24, 2023
Author: Healthwise StaffClinical Review BoardAll Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.
Current as of: June 24, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review BoardAll Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.
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