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About Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, known as AF or Afib, is an irregular and often very fast heart rate. This may cause symptoms like heart palpitations, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Treating atrial fibrillation is important because it may cause a stroke and negatively impact your quality of life. While the condition isn’t considered life-threatening, people with AF are five to seven times more likely to form blood clots and suffer a stroke. Fortunately, AF may be treated with medication, cardioversion (a special type of electric shock), surgical procedure or catheter ablation procedure.

Definition

Atrial fibrillation occurs when the upper chambers of the heart, or atria, fibrillate. This means that they beat very rapidly and irregularly. Blood is not pumped efficiently to the rest of the body which may cause you to feel weak or tired, or to experience uncomfortable heart sensations like a racing or irregular heartbeat.

View an animation of Atrial Fibrillation

Animation of Atrial Fibrillation

There are different types of atrial fibrillation:

  • Paroxysmal (occasional) – Atrial fibrillation that lasts from a few seconds to days, then stops on its own
  • Persistent – Atrial fibrillation that does not stop by itself but will stop if medication or a special type of electrical shock (cardioversion) is given to help the heart return to its normal rhythm
  • Permanent – Atrial fibrillation is present all the time and cannot be fixed with medication or cardioversion

Causes

The causes of atrial fibrillation are often unclear. In some cases, the causes of atrial fibrillation are a heart abnormality from birth or damage to the heart structure from a heart attack or heart valve problem. People with otherwise normal hearts may also develop atrial fibrillation.

Symptoms

Some people experience these symptoms of atrial fibrillation:

  • Heart sensations, sometimes called palpitations, which may include irregular, thumping, or pounding heartbeats
  • A feeling the heart is racing
  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Fainting or light-headedness
  • Fatigue, shortness of breath, or weakness

Others have no symptoms and discover that they have atrial fibrillation at a doctor’s appointment. Even without symptoms, atrial fibrillation is a serious medical condition. Treating AF may prevent stroke, fatigue, and heart failure.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have symptoms of atrial fibrillation. He or she may be able to confirm or rule out AF.

Risk Factors

To help prevent atrial fibrillation, some risk factors may be controlled or modified.

Controllable Risk Factors
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Smoking
  • Excess weight
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Lack of exercise
  • Some medications
  • Sleep apnea
Non-controllable Risk Factors
  • Family history
  • Advancing age
  • Heart disorders from birth
 

Diagnosis

Detecting atrial fibrillation and quantifying it can be challenging. Your doctor may use one or more of the following tests to determine if you have atrial fibrillation:

Information on this site should not be used as a substitute for talking with your doctor. Always talk with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment information.

Last updated: 2 May 2011

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