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Atrial Fibrillation: The Basics

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  • AFib
  • Symptoms & Causes
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatments
  • Living With AFib

What is atrial fibrillation (AFib)?

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is defined as an irregular heart rate (usually more rapid than normal) that can lead to increased risk of heart failure, stroke, and numerous other heart-related diseases. The condition is caused by the heart’s atria (the parts of the heart that receive blood from the veins) beating out of sync with the ventricles (the parts of the heart that push blood back out into the body). Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include heart palpitations (feeling that your heart is racing, pounding, or fluttering), weakness, and shortness of breath.

What is ventricular fibrillation?

Ventricular fibrillation is the most severe type of cardiac arrhythmia. It occurs when the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles) fail to pump blood, leading to cardiac arrest. This condition requires immediate CPR and defibrillation performed by a medical professional.

What is paroxysmal atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is arrhythmia that occurs due to an irregularity in the heart’s atria, causing them to beat out of sync with the ventricles. Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation is an early sign of a heart condition and is defined as atrial fibrillation that starts and stops without any regularity. It can develop into persistent atrial fibrillation if left untreated.

What is persistent atrial fibrillation?

Persistent atrial fibrillation is atrial fibrillation that is long-lasting and is symptomatic of an ongoing disorder in the heart’s atria.

What is atrial flutter?

Atrial flutter is an irregular beating of the heart’s atria that occurs in starts and stops, causing the sensation of fluttering. It is different from atrial fibrillation in that in atrial fibrillation, the atria beat irregularly, and in atrial flutter, they beat faster and more often than normal but in a regular pattern.

What does atrium mean?

“Atrium” is the singular form of “atria” in Latin. The heart’s atria are the two upper chambers of the heart. The atria pump blood into the heart, where the blood exits through the ventricles and is eventually distributed throughout the body.

Is atrial fibrillation considered heart disease?

Atrial fibrillation is not a disease but a condition of the heart that may be symptomatic of an underlying heart disease. It is an arrhythmia of the heart created by the heart’s upper chambers, (the atria), beating out of sync with the heart’s lower chambers (the ventricles).

What causes atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a term that describes the condition where the atria of the heart (two upper chambers) are out of sync with the ventricles (two lower chambers). AFib can present as heart palpitations, or skipping or adding a heartbeat. The causes of atrial fibrillation vary from coronary artery disease to hypertension to congenital heart defects or even hyperthyroidism.

Can atrial fibrillation be brought on by stress?

Stress is a common contributing factor behind the occurrence of arrhythmias, including atrial fibrillation. Studies suggest that emotional stress can aggravate existing atrial fibrillation symptoms.

What causes a rapid heartbeat?

A rapid resting heart rate is typically due to an irregularity in the electricals signals that regulate the pumping of the heart. Certain medications, excessive consumption of alcohol, consumption of narcotics, an imbalance of electrolytes in the body, or heart disease can cause a rapid resting heartbeat.

What causes an irregular heartbeat?

An irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmia, is when the heart beats out of rhythm. The sensation can feel like your heart skipping a beat or fluttering, though in many cases arrhythmia doesn’t present any noticeable symptoms (known as “silent” arrhythmia). Some types of arrhythmia can occur even when your heart is healthy, such as after exercise or when you’re caught by surprise. Other longer lasting and more serious types of arrhythmia are symptomatic of an underlying heart condition.

Who is most at risk for atrial fibrillation?

Anyone with an existing heart condition is at risk of atrial fibrillation. Examples include people with coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, inflammation, or permanent tissue damage caused by a previous heart condition.

What are the symptoms of AFib?

Atrial fibrillation often has no symptoms. However, in cases where symptoms are exhibited, they include an elevated heart rate or heart fluttering, chest pain, dizziness, general fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath.

How does a doctor diagnose atrial fibrillation?

An irregular heartbeat is typically indicative of atrial fibrillation (or some other condition of the heart). If your medical expert suspects you may have atrial fibrillation, a physical exam or electrocardiogram (EKG) can confirm it. AFib is diagnosed using your medical and family histories, combined with information collected via physical exam and a series of tests (such as an EKG). In many cases, AFib doesn’t exhibit symptoms.

Is atrial fibrillation hereditary?

Atrial fibrillation can be hereditary; the condition is termed “familial atrial fibrillation.” Familial atrial fibrillation is linked to mutations in certain genes.

How common is AFib?

AFib is quite rare in most age groups, though it becomes increasingly more common with age. In fact, up until the age of 40, the likelihood of atrial fibrillation ranges from very rare to rare, but becomes very common above the age of 40. About 1 in 4 people over 40 will experience AFib.

What does AFib sound like?

Atrial fibrillation can be heard using a stethoscope. Your doctor may hear a rapid heartbeat—100 to 175 beats per minute—or fluttering of the heart. An irregular heart rate is also symptomatic of atrial fibrillation.

What is ablation?

Cardiac ablation is a procedure for treating atrial fibrillation. Ablation involves the removal of tissue at the source of the condition. Catheter ablation is the least invasive type of ablation. This involves a doctor inserting a thin tube into your blood vessel and applying heat, cold, or radio energy to the tissue that is triggering the atrial fibrillation. Surgical ablation involves surgically entering the chest cavity and manually creating scar tissue to treat the source of the arrhythmia.

What is the success rate of ablation for atrial fibrillation?

Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation can be eliminated in a single catheter ablation session in 70-75 percent of cases. The overall success rate is 85-90 percent for repeated procedures.

How can you stop an AFib episode?

Slow breathing focused through the diaphragm can help with episodes of atrial fibrillation. Take a long, deep breath and hold, before slowly releasing. Vagal maneuvers (techniques that can “shock” the heart back to a steady rhythm) can also help stop episodes. One such maneuver is consuming a glass of ice-cold water. Light exercise has also been shown to successfully halt episodes. If these maneuvers are needed, see your physician to get a treatment plan implemented.

What are blood thinners?

Blood thinners, or anticoagulants, are substances that stop or reduce blood coagulation. This makes the blood take longer to clot. They are often used in treating cardiovascular diseases that can cause blood clots, such as AFib.

What should you do during an AFib attack?

AFib episodes can be treated by performing techniques to return the heart rate back to normal. Such techniques include slow breathing, drinking cold water, light exercise, and yoga. If the symptoms continue, go to an urgent care center or emergency room.

How can you stop AFib naturally?

You can learn to control your AFib symptoms by monitoring your condition, reducing your consumption of inflammatory foods and drinks, working to reduce your stress, and exercising regularly.

How long can you live with AFib?

Atrial fibrillation itself typically doesn’t affect your expected lifespan. However, you will likely experience fatigue and a lack of energy, as well as fluttering of the heart. Medications are added to slow the ventricular response to match the atrial rate.

Can you die from AFib?

AFib itself is not fatal, though it may lead to far more serious heart conditions, including heart disease, stroke, and even sudden cardiac death. In the vast majority of cases, proper treatment can prevent AFib from developing into a life-threatening condition.

How long does AFib last?

Many people will only experience temporary, single episodes of atrial fibrillation. However, those that have heart damage due to another condition may suffer chronic AFib. Persistent AFib lasts longer than a week. Chronic AFib is permanent and should be checked out by a healthcare professional.

How can you prevent AFib from returning?

Atrial fibrillation may be prevented by making lifestyle changes that target the underlying cause of the AFib. Except in some cases, such as in permanent AFib—which is typically associated with permanent heart damage—AFib may be prevented with regular exercise, reducing consumption of inflammatory foods and drinks and regular checkups with a medical expert. Permanent atrial fibrillation usually will need medical treatment or medications.

Can you drive a car with atrial fibrillation?

You should consult with your doctor but generally if you hold a license to drive a car, you are okay to continue driving if you have kept your AFib under control and symptom free for the past month. For your own safety, you must immediately pull over and stop the vehicle if you experience symptoms while driving.

Can losing weight help with atrial fibrillation?

Losing weight and maintaining a healthy body weight can lower blood pressure, which may help. Sustained weight loss could transform the left atrium of the heart, potentially reducing or eliminating atrial fibrillation symptoms.

Can you drink alcohol if you have atrial fibrillation?

If you are at risk of atrial fibrillation, drinking can increase the likelihood of experiencing an episode. In some cases, atrial fibrillation can be triggered by alcohol consumption. It is recommended that you avoid alcohol if you have atrial fibrillation or if you have risk factors for this condition.

What foods should I avoid with atrial fibrillation?

If you have atrial fibrillation, you should reduce your consumption of salt, meat, and dairy. Monitor and limit your cholesterol intake.

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