Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib or AF) is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib.
What happens during AFib?
Normally, your heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat. In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly (quiver) instead of beating effectively to move blood into the ventricles.
If a clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream and lodges in an artery leading to the brain, a stroke results. About 15–20 percent of people who have strokes have this heart arrhythmia. This clot risk is why patients with this condition are put on blood thinners.
Even though untreated atrial fibrillation doubles the risk of heart-related deaths and is associated with a 5-fold increased risk for stroke, many patients are unaware that AFib is a serious condition.
The most common symptom: a quivering or fluttering heartbeat
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of irregular heartbeat. The abnormal firing of electrical impulses causes the atria (the top chambers in the heart) to quiver (or fibrillate).
Additional common symptoms of atrial fibrillation
Sometimes people with AFib have no symptoms and their condition is only detectable upon physical examination. Still, others may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- General fatigue
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat
- Fluttering or “thumping” in the chest
- Shortness of breath and anxiety
- Faintness or confusion
- Fatigue when exercising
- *Chest painor pressure
*Chest pain or pressure is a medical emergency. You may be having a heart attack. Call 9-1-1 immediately.
Know your treatment goals
The treatment goals of atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib) start with a proper diagnosis through an in-depth examination from a physician. The exam usually includes questions about your history and often an EKG or ECG. Some patients may need a thorough electrophysiology study.
Prevention and Risk Reduction
Although no one is able to absolutely guarantee that a stroke or a clot can be preventable, there are ways to reduce risks for developing these problems.
After a patient is diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, the ideal goals may include:
- Restoring the heart to a normal rhythm (called rhythm control)
- Reducing an overly high heart rate (called rate control)
- Preventing blood clots (called prevention of thromboembolism such as stroke)
- Managing risk factors for stroke
- Preventing additional heart rhythm problems
- Preventing heart failure
Getting Back on Beat
Avoiding atrial fibrillation and subsequently lowering your stroke risk can be as simple as foregoing your morning cup of coffee. In other words, some AFib cases are only as strong as their underlying cause. If hyperthyroidism is the cause of AFib, treating the thyroid condition may be enough to make AFib go away.
Doctors can use a variety of different medications to help control the heart rate during atrial fibrillation.
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