10 Things to Know About Atrial Fibrillation

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Nickey Scarborough on June 24, 2021
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    1. It’s the most common form of arrhythmia.
    An arrhythmia is any type of abnormal heart rhythm. In an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slow, or in an irregular pattern. Atrial fibrillation (afib) is an arrhythmia caused by the upper heart chambers (the atria) beating too fast and irregularly, out of time with the two lower chambers (the ventricles).
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    2. Cardiologists refer to it as an “electrical problem.”
    Doctors sometimes describe heart problems as either "plumbing problems" (related to blood flow) or "electrical problems" (related to pumping rhythms). Afib is an electrical problem. With each heartbeat, an electrical signal spreads from the top of the heart to the bottom. As the signal travels, it causes the heart to contract and pump blood. In atrial fibrillation, random electrical signals disrupt the heart's normal pattern of pumping blood.
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    3. Afib has a variety of symptoms—or sometimes none at all.
    Signs of atrial fibrillation include an irregular and fast heartbeat; heart palpitations; dizziness, sweating, and chest pain or pressure; shortness of breath or anxiety; tiring more easily when exercising; and fainting. Just as often, many people report no symptoms of atrial fibrillation and it is discovered on routine ECG
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    4. Afib cases are on the rise.
    Nearly 3 million people in the United States have atrial fibrillation. That number is expected to reach 12 million by the year 2050. Your risk of atrial fibrillation increases as you get older. The average age for men with afib is 66; for women, it's 74. 
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    5. Afib can lead to more serious health conditions.
    The two most significant dangers associated with atrial fibrillation are stroke and heart failure. People with afib have a five times higher risk of an ischemic stroke (one cause by a blood clot). In fact, atrial fibrillation is known to be the cause of 15 to 20% of all ischemic strokes. Taking steps to lower your risk of stroke is one of the primary goals of treatment.
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    6. Afib treatment has several goals.
    The goals of treating atrial fibrillation include lowering stroke risk by preventing blood clots from forming; establishing rate control, by slowing the heart rate; and restoring a normal rhythm. If there are underlying disorders contributing to your atrial fibrillation, your treatment plan will include steps to address those issues as well.
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    7. Doctors use a combination of medications to treat afib.
    Blood thinners are used to prevent blood clots from forming, which helps reduce the risk of a stroke. Medications including beta blockers and calcium channel blockers can be prescribed to establish a normal heart rate. Other medicines can be taken to bring the heart back into rhythm. Different medications work better for some people than for others, so work with your doctor to find the best combination of treatments for you.
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    8. You may need a procedure if medications aren’t working.
    When medications aren't enough to bring the heart back into rhythm, your doctor may consider one of several procedures. In cardioversion, low-energy shocks are given to your heart to trigger a normal rhythm. You're temporarily put to sleep before you receive the shocks, and the shocks aren't painful. Another option is catheter ablation in which a thin, flexible tube is inserted into the heart via a catheter to apply energy that "disconnects" the abnormal rhythm.
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    9. You can live a healthy, active life with afib.
    To live safely with atrial fibrillation and reduce your risk of a stroke, get regular exercise. Start slowly if you're fatigued, and work your way up. Eat a heart-healthy diet. Diet and exercise will help you maintain your weight, which helps your overall heart health. Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine, which can trigger afib. Manage high blood pressure and cholesterol. And if you're a smoker, quit the habit.
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    10. Working with your doctor is the key to successful treatment.
    Ongoing medical care is important for people with atrial fibrillation. Don't skip appointments. Keep a list of all the medications you take, and bring them with you to all your doctor visits. This is important even if you're seeing a doctor other than your heart doctor. Follow your doctor's instructions for taking all your medicines. If you're taking blood thinners, you may need to have your blood monitored regularly. Lastly, talk with your doctor about your diet, as certain foods can interfere with blood-thinning medications. 
10 Things to Know About Atrial Fibrillation

About The Author

As Vice President, Editorial for Healthgrades, Nickey oversees the site’s content for both its consumer and professional audiences. Nickey is a seasoned digital health leader. Prior to Healthgrades, she held roles at Deloitte Consulting and WebMD.
  1. Catheter Ablation. Cleveland Clinic. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/services/ablation
  2. What Is Atrial Fibrillation? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/
  3. Living With Atrial Fibrillation. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/livingwith.html
  4. Prevention Strategies for Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF). American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/AboutArrhythmia/Prevention-Strategies-for-Atrial-Fibrillation-AFib-or-AF_UCM_423784_Article.jsp
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Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 24
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