Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm, frequently referred to as AFIB or AF. In fact, it’s the most common type of arrhythmia and affects approximately six million people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), but that number is expected to double by the year 2030. Worldwide, AFIB affects more than 30 million people. The presence of AFIB can increase someone’s risk for stroke or other heart-related complications such as congestive heart failure. Fortunately, AFIB can be treated, but it’s important to get a diagnosis if you’re experiencing any symptoms that could be caused by this condition. In the following, we’ll explore what atrial fibrillation is, its signs and symptoms, and its treatments.
Overview of Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heartbeat that is characterized by an irregular pulse. The upper chambers of the heart (atria) beat too fast, and as a result, the upper and lower chambers of the heart are not coordinated. The pulse rate may be fast or slow. The lack of coordination between the chambers causes the heart rate to slow down or speed up. Unfortunately, many people who have this condition do not experience signs or symptoms, or the symptoms are so mild that they attribute them to something else or ignore them.
To understand AFIB it is important to first know about the normal heart rhythm. The heartbeat is normally coordinated by the heart’s electrical system, and it is this electrical signal that tells the heart’s chambers when to beat. The upper chambers coordinate to empty the blood into the lower chambers. During atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart contract too quickly or chaotically. Consequently, blood may not be pumped completely from the upper to the lower chambers. It can pool there and can increase the risk of clot formation that can lead to stroke, and the irregularity of the heartbeat can reduce the efficiency of the heart.
AFIB can come and go as brief episodes, or it can persist as a more permanent problem. According to The American Heart Association, If atrial fibrillation is left untreated, it can double the risk for heart-related death.
What Causes Atrial Fibrillation?
Advancing age is one of the chief risk factors for atrial fibrillation. However, often, a defect of the heart or some form of heart disease causes the condition to develop. On the other hand, some individuals have no heart damage yet still suffer from AFIB.
The most common causes of atrial fibrillation are:
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Congenital heart defects
- Metabolic imbalance
- Abnormal heart valves
- Lung disease
- Sleep apnea
- Stress caused by an illness such as pneumonia
- Ingestion of stimulants
- A prior heart surgery
When these factors are present, complications associated with AFIB are more common. Some people may have AFIB without any of these associated problems, so-called “Lone Atrial fibrillation” This type of AF occurs on its own, and tends to be more easily controlled and less prone to be related health complications.
Aside from Age, What Are the Risk Factors for AFIB?
As you might have assumed from the previous section, AFIB is associated with certain risk factors such as previous heart surgery or heart attack. The presence of heart disease and high blood pressure are also substantial risk factors for developing AFIB. In addition to these and age, other risk factors for the condition are:
- Consumption of alcohol (especially binge drinking)
- Family history (some families are prone to developing the condition)
- Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, thyroid conditions, kidney disease, or metabolic syndrome
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?
If you have already been diagnosed with heart disease, you should be particularly aware of the signs and symptoms of AFIB. In fact, your healthcare provider may routinely ask you if you are experiencing any symptoms associated with the condition. Of course, because anyone can develop AFIB, it’s important to know about its telltale symptoms, especially as you get older.
The most common signs and symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:
- Heart palpitations (the heart may feel like it’s pounding or fluttering)
- Shortness of breath
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Irregular heartbeat
- Chest tightness or pain
If you experience chest pain, you could be having a heart attack, so it’s crucial to obtain medical care right away. Other symptoms warrant an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible. AFIB can be a persistent condition or may occur sporadically. If you’re diagnosed with AFIB, your provider will recommend a course of treatment.
How Is Atrial Fibrillation Treated?
To treat AFIB, your doctor or cardiologist may recommend medications to control your heart rate along with lifestyle changes if necessary. For instance, patients with high blood pressure may be advised to change their diet. It’s not uncommon for doctors to prescribe blood thinners to reduce the potential for blood clots and risk for stroke, which can be a complication of AFIB. In certain cases, your cardiologist may recommend procedures to control the AFIB or to restore a normal heart rhythm.
Can Atrial Fibrillation Be Prevented?
To reduce the risk of developing AFIB, it’s important to practice a heart-healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and a healthy diet. Since obesity is a risk factor for the condition, it’s important to maintain a healthy weight. You can also reduce the risk for AFIB by:
- Limiting alcohol
- Avoiding smoking
- Avoid stimulants like over-the-counter medications that could induce a rapid heart rate
- Reducing chronic stress
Keep in mind that some people develop AFIB even with no risk factors present.
Living with AFIB
Atrial fibrillation is a serious condition that should not be ignored. Nevertheless, AFIB can be managed successfully if treated properly. The key is to visit your healthcare provider if you experience any of the symptoms associated with this condition or any other symptoms that are unusual for you. Remember that AFIB can be triggered by other health conditions.
If you are concerned about heart disease or symptoms you’re experiencing that could be related to AFIB, schedule an appointment with Vital Heart & Vein. Don’t ignore your symptoms. The best defense against AFIB and other heart conditions is proper diagnosis and timely treatment.