Atrial fibrillation (also known as AFib) is a condition where the heart’s atria beat out of sync with the ventricles because of an issue with the heart’s electrical system. This irregular beat can cause blood to pool in one or both of the atria, which increases the risk of a clot forming. These clots can cause serious issues such as strokes, heart failure, and other heart rhythm complications. It is estimated that over three million people suffer from atrial fibrillation every year in the United States.
Common symptoms of atrial fibrillation are an irregular pulse, chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, and lightheadedness. Atrial fibrillation is categorized into three main categories: Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, Persistent atrial fibrillation, and Permanent atrial fibrillation. Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation comes on quickly, doesn’t last a long time, and goes away without treatment. Persistent atrial fibrillation lasts more than a week, and generally does not go away on its own. Permanent atrial fibrillation happens constantly for at least a year and is the most serious of the three types.
Atrial fibrillation can be caused by a variety of factors, including smoking and drinking. Other risk factors include being over the age of 60, being overweight, a Caucasian male, and a family history of AFib. Other things that increase the risk of AFib are conditions that affect the heart’s anatomy itself, such as high blood pressure, a previous heart attack, and heart surgery. If a person is diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, but the cause is unknown, is it called lone atrial fibrillation. If signs of atrial fibrillation are present a doctor will perform a cardiac exam, if it is still believed a patient has Afib the most common diagnostic test is an electrocardiogram. If a longer look at heart activity is desired (such as in cases where the fibrillation may come and go) a person may wear a Holter monitor or Event recorder.
Treatment of atrial fibrillation varies depending on the severity of the condition and the goals of the patient. Treatment may be used to bring the heart to a normal rhythm, bring down a higher heart rate, reduce the likelihood of blood clots, or control risks for stroke. Sometimes a change as simple as reducing caffeine intake or stopping high stress activities may be enough to stop a person’s Afib. If that isn’t enough, the most common treatments for atrial fibrillation work to slow down the heart rate of the patient, although the rhythm of the heart will continue to be irregular. A person may be prescribed beta blockers, digitalis, or calcium channel blockers to achieve this. If the treatment goal is to reduce the risk of stroke or blood clots, anticoagulant medications are prescribed.
To control the heart’s rhythm antiarrhythmic medicines may be prescribed, but these require careful monitoring and may become less useful over time. Other options include electrical cardioversion: which is when a low-voltage shock is used in an attempt to bring the heart to a normal rhythm, catheter ablation: sending thin wires into the heart through a vein that use higher levels of heat or cold to wipe out tissues that are causing the fibrillation, and a maze procedure: which is when a surgeon uses various techniques to form scar tissue in the heart that prevent Afib by blocking the electrical impulses, this is usually performed during open-heart surgery. A pacemaker may also be implanted in rarer cases.
People diagnosed with atrial fibrillation can usually live active, normal lives. While changes such as quitting smoking and light exercise may help, the most critical thing a patient can do is receive consistent health care and monitor their condition carefully. As long as a person stays on top of their atrial fibrillation they should be able to say relatively healthy and have little to no complications from it.
(National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)
(American Heart Association)