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A Complete Guide to Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation (also called AFib) is a life-threatening heart condition that can happen to anyone, but many people who have AFib aren’t getting the treatment they need. In fact, they may not even know they have it. In honor of National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month, let’s take an in-depth look at what AFib is, its types, causes, and symptoms, certain risk factors for the condition, and its treatment options.

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

AFib is an irregular heartbeat (or arrhythmia) that can lead to heart failure, blood clots, stroke, and other heart-related complications. For a person with AFib, the heart’s upper chambers (the two atria) beat irregularly, causing poor blood flow from the atria to the lower ventricles. Affecting at least 2.7 million Americans, AFib can occur in either brief episodes or as a permanent condition.

Types of AFib

There are five types of atrial fibrillation, and it’s important to know the differences between them.

Paroxysmal fibrillation occurs when the heart returns to a normal rhythm either on its own or with intervention, within seven days of its start. Those with this type of AFib may experience episodes only a few times per year, or their symptoms could happen every day. The symptoms are unpredictable, and can often lead to a permanent form of AFib.

Persistent AFib refers to an irregular rhythm that lasts more than seven days. This type of AFib will not return to a normal rhythm on its own and requires some form of treatment.

Long-standing AFib is diagnosed when the heart consistently beats in an irregular rhythm that lasts longer than 12 months.

Permanent AFib is when the condition lasts indefinitely, and the patient and doctor have decided not to continue further attempts to restore a normal rhythm.

The final type of AFib, nonvalvular AFib, refers to atrial fibrillation not caused by a heart valve issue.

AFib Causes

Under normal circumstances, your heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat. For those with AFib, this occurs in an irregular beat. The base cause of AFib is disorganized signals that make the atria (upper chambers) squeeze very quickly and out of sync. They contract so fast that the heart walls quiver, or fibrillate.

Another cause of atrial fibrillation could be from damage to your heart’s electrical system. This damage often results from other conditions that affect the heart. Changes to the heart’s tissue can also cause AFib.

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Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

AFib symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • General fatigue
  • Rapid and irregular heartbeat
  • Fluttering or “thumping” in the chest
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath and anxiety
  • Weakness
  • Faintness or confusion
  • Fatigue when exercising
  • Sweating
  • Chest pain or pressure

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out to your doctor.

AFib Risk Factors

Typically people who have one or more of the following conditions are at a higher risk for developing atrial fibrillation:

  • Advanced age
  • High blood pressure
  • Underlying heart disease
  • Moderate to heavy alcohol use
  • Family history of AFib
  • Sleep apnea
  • Obesity
  • Heart failure
  • Smoking
  • Other chronic conditions such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, kidney disease, and asthma

To reduce your risk of developing AFib, your best option is to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle. Here are some things you can do to reduce the risk of complications associated with AFib:

  • Get regular physical activity
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet, low in salt, saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol
  • Manage high blood pressure
  • Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine
  • Don’t smoke
  • Control cholesterol
  • Maintain a healthy weight

Before starting any new workout or diet, it’s always best to consult your physician.

Treatment Options for Atrial Fibrillation

The goals for AFib treatment begin with a proper diagnosis through an in-depth examination from a physician. This exam typically includes questions about your history and any symptoms you’re experiencing, and often include an EKG or ECG. Some patients may also need to undergo an electrophysiology study.

After receiving an AFib diagnosis, ideal treatment goals may involve:

  • Restoring the heart to a normal rhythm (called rhythm control)
  • Reducing an overly high heart rate (called rate control)
  • Preventing blood clots (called prevention of thromboembolism such as stroke)
  • Managing risk factors for stroke
  • Preventing additional heart rhythm problems
  • Preventing heart failure

AFib treatment options may include one or more of the following:

  • Medications
    • Rhythm controllers
    • Blood thinners
    • Rate controllers
  • Nonsurgical procedures
    • Electrical cardioversion
    • Radiofrequency ablation or catheter ablation
  • Surgical procedures
    • Pacemaker
    • Open-heart maze procedure

If you’ve been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, your doctor will work with you to design the treatment plan that best fits your lifestyle and needs.