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Atrial Fibrillation


Overview

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (say "AY-tree-uhl fih-bruh-LAY-shun") is the most common type of 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 two upper parts of the heart, the atria, to quiver, or fibrillate.

The quivering upsets the normal rhythm between the atria and the lower parts of the heart, the ventricles. And the ventricles may beat fast and without a regular rhythm.

This is dangerous because if the heartbeat isn't strong and steady, blood can collect, or pool, in the atria. And pooled blood is more likely to form clots. Clots can travel to the brain, block blood flow, and cause a stroke.

Interactive Tool: What Is Your Risk for a Stroke if You Have Atrial Fibrillation?Click here to see an interactive tool.

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:

  • High blood pressure.
  • Coronary artery disease.
  • Heart attack.
  • Heart valve disease.

Other possible causes include:

  • Other medical problems, such as heart failure, lung disease, pneumonia, or a high thyroid level.
  • Heart surgery.
  • Heavy alcohol use. This includes having more than 3 drinks a day over many years as well as drinking a large amount of alcohol at one time (binge drinking).
  • Use of stimulants. These include caffeine, nicotine, medicines such as decongestants, and illegal drugs such as cocaine.
  • Use of some prescription medicines, such as albuterol or theophylline.

Sometimes doctors can't find the cause. Doctors call this lone atrial fibrillation.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Feeling out of breath.
  • Feeling weak and tired.
  • Feeling like the heart is fluttering, racing, or pounding (palpitations).
  • Feeling like the heart is beating unevenly.
  • Having chest pain (angina).
  • Fainting.

Sometimes atrial fibrillation doesn't cause obvious symptoms.

If you have symptoms, 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?

Your treatment will depend on the cause of your atrial fibrillation, your symptoms, and your risk for stroke.

Medicines are an important part of treatment. They may include:

Doctors sometimes use a procedure called cardioversion to try to get the heartbeat back to normal. This can be done using either medicine or a low-voltage electrical shock (electrical cardioversion).

If symptoms keep bothering you, ablation may help. It destroys small areas of the heart to create scar tissue. The scar tissue blocks or destroys the areas that are causing the abnormal 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.

  • Don't smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke too.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet with plenty of fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, high-fiber grains and breads, and olive oil.
  • Get regular exercise on most, preferably all, days of the week. Your doctor can suggest a safe level of exercise for you.
  • Control your cholesterol and blood pressure. If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar in your target range.
  • Manage your stress. Stress can damage your heart.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and stimulants.
  • Avoid getting sick from the flu. Get a flu shot every year.
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