What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation is a type of irregular heartbeat characterised by rapid and irregular beating, causing the ventricles to receive too little blood. At the same time, blood may congest and clot in the atria. These clots can enter the bloodstream and reach the brain, causing stroke. Atrial fibrillation disrupts the conduction of electrical impulses to the lower heart chambers. This can cause a quick, slow or irregular heartbeat. Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disorder (cardiac arrhythmia). Two out of every hundred people in developed countries are affected by this disorder. As populations age, atrial fibrillation will become more common1. Generally, atrial fibrillation is not life-threatening, however patients have a high risk of stroke. Visit your doctor if you experience the symptoms below and are concerned you may have atrial fibrillation.
When atrial fibrillation occurs suddenly and goes away on its own (called “paroxysmal atrial fibrillation”), many patients experience no symptoms. In other patients, the disorder causes an irregular pulse, an irregular or fast heartbeat, palpitations, chest pain, dizziness and/or restlessness. If the heart cannot pump enough blood, you may feel weak and out of breath, especially while exercising. Some patients experience anxiety and fear during atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation should be diagnosed and treated early. Even if patients experience no symptoms, patients have a risk of stroke. The disorder may also occur more frequently as time passes.
Patients with the following risk factors should see a physician for regular check-ups. Some risk factors can be reduced with treatment and lifestyle changes:
- Advanced age
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Chronic heart failure
- Cardiac dilatation
- Heart valve disease including aortic stenosis and mitral stenosis
Hyperthyroidism and diabetes, as well as too much alcohol and an electrolyte imbalance can lead to atrial fibrillation.
To test for atrial fibrillation, a physician measures a patient’s pulse, listens to their heart, and performs an electrocardiogram (EKG/ECG). The EKG graphs the heart’s electrical activity. In most cases, this will be enough to diagnose atrial fibrillation. If atrial fibrillation occurs occasionally and stops on its own, a physician may not be able to detect it in their office. If atrial fibrillation is still suspected, the patient will receive EKG that lasts at least 24 hours. For longer-term monitoring of up to two years, the physician can implant a cardiac monitor. The physician will also likely perform a stress test to see how the heart reacts to exercise. Further exams such as cardiac ultrasound, blood tests and chest X-rays may also help detect underlying causes.
Find here more information about the treatment options of Atrial Fibrillation .
Always take your prescribed medications and follow your physician’s recommendations. Talk with your doctor or seek a second medical opinion if you have questions or doubts about your current treatment.
Some risk factors can be reduced by eating healthy, refraining from or consuming small amounts of alcohol, and exercising regularly but not too strenuously.
1 Camm AJ et al. 2012 focused update of the ESC Guidelines for the management of atrial fibrillation. European Heart Journal Nov 2012, 33 (21) 2719-2747; DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehs253 – Needs to be in Vancouver style if keeping citation