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. A-Fib increases the risk of stroke five-fold, according to the American Heart Association, and it can also lead to congestive heart failure and chronic fatigue.
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. 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.
Are You at Risk?
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
Symptoms of A-Fib
Episodes of A-Fib may come and go in a matter of hours, or symptoms may persist for longer periods until treated. Palpitations (the sensation of a racing, fluttering or irregular heartbeat) are the most recognizable symptom of A-Fib. Other symptoms include:
- Unexplained falls or fainting
- 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 are 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. An electrophysiology study may be done to record electrical activity of your heart and determine the cause of heart rhythm disturbance.
Restoring the Right Rhythm
Treatments for A-Fib restore or reset the heart's rhythm so your heart can pump blood effectively. A doctor can determine the best course of treatment for you, which may include one or more of the following options:
- Lifestyle modifications to reduce risk factors – a heart-healthy, low-sodium diet; exercise; smoking cessation; avoiding alcohol.
- Medications may be used to slow down the rapid heart rate associated with A-Fib and/or prevent clotting.
- Electrical cardioversion may be performed by a physician to restore normal heart rhythm using a precise electric shock defibrillator.
- Radiofrequency ablation is a procedure that delivers a burst of radiofrequency energy through a thin, flexible tube inserted in a blood vessel. The treatment destroys tissue that triggers abnormal electrical signals.
- Surgery can be performed to disrupt electrical pathways that cause A-Fib.
- Atrial pacemakers may be implanted to regulate the heart's rhythm.
Listen to Your Body
Don't ignore a racing, fluttering heartbeat or other signs of A-Fib. Treatment for A-Fib helps you feel better now and prevents more serious complications down the road. Learn more about treatment options and our team of cardiac electrophysiologists.