Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) is a condition characterized by an irregular heartbeat that can lead to a variety of serious complications, including stroke, clots, heart attack, and heart failure. Patients often describe AFib as feeling as though their heart is skipping beats, causing shortness of breath, dizziness, and swollen ankles. But AFib can be just as dangerous with no outward symptoms at all.
When working normally, a heart relaxes and contracts with a regular rhythm. With AFib, the atria in the heart contract irregularly. This can cause a clot to build up and break off, causing a stroke. In fact, about one fifth of people who suffer a stroke have an irregular heartbeat, and nearly three million people suffer from AFib in the USA alone.
Causes of Atrial Fibrillation
Many risk factors for AFib have been long understood, including high blood pressure, aging, obesity, diabetes, prior heart attacks, chronic lung disease, and excessive alcohol use. Even with those risk factors in mind, about one third of AFib cases have no understood cause, but there’s always more information being discovered.
For instance, a recent study suggests that smoking during pregnancy drastically increases a child’s likelihood of suffering from AFib later in life. Researchers found exposure to smoke during pregnancy was dangerous to infants almost without regard to the degree of exposure. In households where at least one parent smoked, a child’s risk of atrial fibrillation later in life increased by more than 30%.
Gout may also be linked to AFib, resulting from unbalanced uric acid and xanthine oxidase in the body; systemic inflammation can also negatively contribute. While research seems to strongly indicate that gout raises a person’s risk of AFib, little is known about the relationship.
Additionally, about half of those who suffer from sleep apnea also have atrial fibrillation. Sleep apnea is very common, affecting about 18 million Americans, but most cases go undiagnosed as people remain unaware of their condition. Untreated sleep apnea has been proven to increase recurrence of AFib, but as with gout, the precise relationship between the two isn’t yet well understood.
AFib is quick and easy to diagnose by looking at your family history, conducting a physical exam, and performing very simple tests. Because AFib doesn’t always present with outward symptoms, doctors may use an EKG to detect the problem. During your examination, a doctor will look at your heart rate, pulse, and blood pressure to detect problems. They may also conduct a stress test to increase your heart rate, or take a chest x-ray for a closer look.
If you’re diagnosed with AFib, it’s likely you’ll be asked to undergo further tests to check if your condition has negatively affected your health. For example, your doctor may ask you to take a transesophageal echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound camera that can help take photos of your heart and reveal potential blood clots.
Before accounting for all the AFib risk factors, the average person has about a 10% chance of suffering from this condition as they age. Left untreated, atrial fibrillation can be a serious threat to your health. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and once detected, AFib is relatively easy to treat. That’s why, whether or not you have outward-showing symptoms, getting regularly screened for atrial fibrillation may save your life.