What You Should Know About Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, often called afib, is a type of irregular heartbeat. During afib, the upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly, rapidly, and out of sync with the lower chambers. If untreated, afib can increase your risk of heart failure, stroke, and other cardiovascular complications.


What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Under normal circumstances, the heart’s electrical system maintains a steady rhythm that originates with the atria and is followed by the ventricles. If the electrical system malfunctions, the atria may quiver instead of providing a strong, steady beat. Afib is especially dangerous because it can allow blood to pool in the atria, which can lead to clots. These clots can travel and block blood flow to the brain resulting in a stroke.

Afib Signs and Symptoms

In some cases, the symptoms of afib are so subtle that a person may not realize they have the condition until it is discovered during a routine examination. Typical symptoms include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Weakness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Exercise intolerance.
  • Palpitations or a sensation that the heart is racing or flip-flopping.
  • Chest discomfort.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Confusion.

You should see your doctor immediately if you experience any of the symptoms of atrial fibrillation. Your doctor can perform an electrocardiogram and other tests to determine if you have the condition.

What causes Afib?

The most common cause of afib is heart damage or an abnormality in the structure of the heart. Frequent causes of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Abnormal heart valves.
  • Prior heart attacks.
  • Coronary artery disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Congenital heart defects.
  • Viral infections.
  • Stimulants, including caffeine, tobacco, and medications.
  • Sleep apnea.
  • Prior heart surgery.
  • Stress related to other illnesses.
  • Metabolic imbalances.

In some cases, the cause of the arrhythmia is not clear. This is referred to as lone atrial fibrillation. The condition is unrelated to heart damage, and complications are rare.

Common Afib Types

Atrial fibrillation can present in a variety of ways. The most frequently seen types of afib include:

  • Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, which may come and go, lasts anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, and typically resolves on its own.
  • Persistent atrial fibrillation in which the heart’s rhythm does not return to normal without medication or electrical shock.
  • Long-standing persistent atrial fibrillation is an abnormal rhythm that lasts continuously for longer than a year.
  • Permanent atrial fibrillation occurs when the heart’s rhythm cannot be restored to normal. Patients with this type of afib require medications to control their heart rate.

Common Afib Treatments

Your doctor will determine your exact course of treatment based on the cause of your afib as well as your risk for stroke. The three primary treatments include:

  • Medications to control heart rate.
  • Medications to prevent blood clots.
  • Medications to control heart rhythm. In some cases, low-voltage electrical shocks or procedures to destroy small areas of the heart causing the abnormal impulses may be required to relieve symptoms or restore rhythm.

You can also improve your condition by implementing lifestyle changes, including a heart-healthy diet, exercise, stopping smoking, and avoiding alcohol.