Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of irregular heartbeat that often causes the heart to beat too rapidly.  AFib can cause some serious complications so it is important that we recognize and treat it.
What is AFib?
Atrial FibrillationAFib is an irregular heartbeat that is often very rapid.  During AFib, the two upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat in an irregular and chaotic way that is out of sync with the two lower chambers of the heart (the ventricles).  The upper chambers sort of quiver in a chaotic way, rather than squeezing into a contraction like they should.
What are the symptoms of AFib?
Some people have no symptoms with AFib and have no idea they have it until their doctor discovers it on a routine physical exam.  When symptoms are noticeable, they include:
  • Palpitations – The sensation of the heart racing, flip-flopping, fluttering, or beating irregularly.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Chest pain
What are the different types of AFib?
  • Paroxysmal AFib – This type happens occasionally.  It causes symptoms that come and go, which can last a few minutes to a few days.  These episodes go away on their own without treatment.
  • Persistent AFib – With this type, your heart rhythm does not go back to normal on its own.  It can last indefinitely if not treated.  This type of AFib should be treated with medications or a special type of electrical shock to get the heart back into a normal rhythm.
  • Permanent AFib – This type of AFib does not respond to treatment or responds but returns to AFib soon after.  We treat this type with medications to prevent complications.
What causes AFib?
During a normal heartbeat, the upper chambers and lower chambers of the heart work together to pump blood.  This is coordinated by electrical signals that come from your heart’s natural pacemaker, called the sinus node.  These signals then travel through a connecting pathway called the AV node.  In AFib, those electrical signals do not work like they should.
Here are some possible causes for the malfunction of the electrical system of the heart:
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Coronary artery disease – Blocked arteries within the heart
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Congenital heart disease – Defects within the heart that you are present from birth
  • An overactive thyroid or other metabolic imbalance
  • Exposure to stimulants – Certain medications, caffeine, tobacco
  • Exposure to alcohol
  • Sick sinus syndrome – improper functioning of the heart’s natural pacemaker
  • Certain lung diseases
  • Sleep apnea
  • Certain viral infections
  • Stress from a serious illness or surgery
What increases your risk of developing AFib?
  • Age – There is higher risk as you get older.
  • Heart disease – any type of heart disease
  • High blood pressure – Especially if it is not well controlled
  • Drinking alcohol – Especially higher alcohol intake or binge drinking
  • Obesity
  • Family history of AFib
Next week we will talk about the possible complications of AFib, which can be serious, as well as how it is treated.
If you have any questions about atrial fibrillation, please log into your account and send
us your question. We are here to help.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor

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