What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (say “A-tree-uhl fih-bruh-LAY-shun?) is an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia) that starts in the upper parts (atria) of the heart. Atrial fibrillation is a common type of arrhythmia in people older than age 60.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of persistent irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).
Normally, the heart beats in a strong, steady rhythm. In atrial fibrillation, a problem with the heart's electrical system causes the atria to quiver, or fibrillate. The quivering upsets the normal rhythm between the atria and the lower parts (ventricles) of the heart. The lower parts may beat fast and without a regular rhythm.
Atrial fibrillation is dangerous because it greatly increases the risk of stroke. If the heart doesn't beat strongly, blood can collect, or pool, in the atria. Pooled blood is more likely to form clots. If the heart pumps a clot into the bloodstream, the clot can travel to the brain and block blood flow, causing a stroke. Atrial fibrillation can also lead to heart failure.
What causes atrial fibrillation?
Conditions that damage or strain the heart commonly cause atrial fibrillation. These include:
Atrial fibrillation may also be caused by:
Sometimes doctors can't find the cause. Doctors call this lone atrial fibrillation.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may include:
Atrial fibrillation is common, especially in older adults, and it may not cause obvious symptoms. If you have any of the symptoms listed, see your doctor. Finding and treating atrial fibrillation right away can help you avoid serious problems.
How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?
The doctor will ask questions about your past health, do a physical exam, and order tests. The best way to find out if you have atrial fibrillation is to have an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). An EKG is a test that checks for problems with the heart's electrical activity.
You might also have lab tests and an echocardiogram. An echocardiogram can show how well your heart is pumping and whether your heart valves are damaged.
How is it treated?
A number of treatments may be used for atrial fibrillation. Which treatments are best for you depend on the cause, your symptoms, and your risk of stroke.
Doctors sometimes use a procedure called cardioversion to try to get the heartbeat back to a normal rhythm. This can be done using either medicine or a low-voltage electrical shock (electrical cardioversion). Atrial fibrillation often comes back after cardioversion.
Medicines are used to help prevent stroke. Most people who have atrial fibrillation need to take a blood-thinning medicine to help prevent strokes. You might take an anticoagulant, such as warfarin, or an antiplatelet, such as aspirin. If you are age 55 or older and have atrial fibrillation, you can find your risk of stroke using this Interactive Tool: What Is Your Risk for a Stroke if You Have Atrial Fibrillation?
Medicines might be used to control your heart rate or heart rhythm.
Cardioversion and medicines don't work for some people who continue to have bothersome symptoms. In these cases, doctors sometimes recommend a procedure called ablation. Ablation destroys small areas of the heart. This creates scar tissue, which blocks or destroys areas that cause or maintain the irregular heart rhythm.
What can you do at home for atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation is often the result of heart disease or damage. So making changes that improve the condition of your heart may also improve your overall health.
eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise
To learn more visit Healthwise.org
© 1995-2012 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Find out what women really need.