Atrial fibrillation (A-Fib), the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm, is not usually life-threatening on its own. If untreated, however, A-Fib can cause serious complications.

Normally, the heart contracts and relaxes in a coordinated rhythm. A-Fib interferes with the heart's normal electrical signals, causing an irregular, rapid heartbeat.

In people with A-Fib, the heart's upper chambers quiver instead of beat effectively. This can cause blood to pool and clot, potentially leading to a stroke. In fact, A-Fib increases the risk of stroke five-fold, according to the American Heart Association.

A-Fib also decreases the heart’s pumping ability. The irregularity can make the heart work less efficiently. A-Fib that occurs over a long period of time can significantly weaken the heart and lead to heart failure and chronic fatigue.

A-Fib Risk Factors

About 3 million Americans suffer from A-Fib, and that number is likely to double by 2035. The following factors increase your risk for A-Fib:

  • Age (risk increases with age)
  • History of heart disease, heart attack, heart surgery or valve problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic conditions such as thyroid problems, sleep apnea and other medical problems
  • Alcohol consumption (for some people, drinking alcohol can trigger A-Fib)
  • Family history of A-Fib

A-Fib Symptoms

Episodes of A-Fib may come and go in a matter of hours, or symptoms may persist for longer periods until treated. Symptoms of A-Fib include:

  • Palpitations (the sensation of a racing, fluttering or irregular heartbeat)
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Chest pain*

*Call for emergency medical help if you experience chest pain, which may be a sign of a heart attack.

If you think you're experiencing A-Fib, seek urgent medical care. A doctor can assess your condition and refer you to an electrophysiologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating heart arrhythmias.