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How serious is atrial fibrillation?

Thursday, August 24, 2023 9:51 AM

By NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

Have you ever felt like your heart flip-flopped or skipped a beat, or experienced a fluttering feeling in your chest?

That could be atrial fibrillation (AFib), one of the most common types of irregular heart rhythms. It happens when your heart’s upper and lower chambers fall out of sync, resulting in a chaotic, faster-than-normal heart rhythm.

A normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. In AFib, the heart rate can increase to between 100 and 175 beats per minute and can be irregular.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

Certain chronic conditions can cause damage to the heart’s electrical system and may lead to AFib, such as high blood pressure, heart attack, obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, heart valve disease, chronic alcohol abuse and heart failure.

Certain reversible conditions, such as pulmonary embolism, heart surgery and pneumonia, can also trigger an episode of AFib.

“Sometimes there’s no underlying cause for AFib. Improvements in lifestyle choices, such as exercise, weight loss, stress management, and avoiding alcohol, tobacco and other stimulants can decrease the risk of developing AFib,” said Mark Metzl, MD, a cardiac electrophysiologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem.

afibWhat are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation symptoms can range widely in severity, but generally include:

  • Heart palpitations (rapid, fluttering or pounding)
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

How do you know when you need medical treatment for AFib?

If you only have a two-second palpitation once a year, you may not need medical attention. However, if symptoms are affecting your quality of life, such as your ability to exercise or socialize the way you want, see your doctor. If you have severe or dangerous symptoms, such as fainting or chest pain, go to the emergency department.

“One reason AFib is troubling is because it can increase someone’s risk for stroke,” Dr. Metzl said. “In fact, AFib causes a four- to five-fold increase in risk of stroke and, if uncontrolled, AFib may weaken the heart and lead to heart failure.”

It’s estimated that AFib contributes to 158,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Fortunately, there are many options for diagnosis and treatment. To determine the best course for a particular patient, physicians consider the severity of symptoms and whether the episodes are fleeting, persistent or permanent.

Treatment could include medication; cardioversion, a procedure that resets a regular heart rhythm using low-energy electric shocks; catheter-based treatment such as ablation or left atrial appendage closure or, rarely, surgery.

AFib can’t always be cured but you can manage the risk with a healthy diet, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and moderating alcohol consumption.

Your heart is in good hands when you choose us for cardiovascular care. Learn more about our high-quality heart care.

Need a doctor? Find the right one for you at NorthShore University HealthSystem.