Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a heart condition in which the upper chambers of the heart (known as the atria) beat irregularly. Afib is known as an arrhythmia, an abnormal heartbeat — which can be slower or faster than usual. In AFib, because the upper and lower chambers of the heart are not working together, the efficiency of the heart’s contractions decreases.
AFib is the most common heart rhythm disorder treated in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate 12.1 million people will have AFib in the U.S. by 2030. Women and people of European descent are more likely to experience AFib.
In a healthy, functioning heart, all four chambers beat together in a normal rhythm. This is controlled by a group of cells in the upper right chamber of the heart known as the sinus node. The sinus node acts as the heart’s natural pacemaker, and it uses electrical signals to start each heartbeat.
During AFib, the electrical signals in the atria are chaotic, causing the heart to beat (quiver) in an irregular rhythm. This means the atria cannot pump enough blood to the ventricles, which can lead to a number of health problems. The normal range for a heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm). However, in AFib, the heart rate is increased to 100 to 175 bpm.
The most common causes of AFib are abnormalities or damage to the heart muscles and structure. These causes can include:
Certain factors can put you at a higher risk for developing AFib. These include:
In some cases, a person with AFib may not know they have the condition because they may not have any symptoms. Others can experience symptoms, including:
If you don’t have any of the above symptoms, AFib may be detected during a physical examination where a doctor listens to your heart, such as a routine physical or an appointment for another reason. “I was so surprised, up until this time I felt fine,” a MyHeartDiseaseTeam member commented. “I was admitted into the hospital for something else. They told me there I had Afib.”
If your doctor notices an unusual heartbeat, they may refer you to a cardiologist for further evaluation. A cardiologist may order a number of tests, including an electrocardiogram, an echocardiogram, and blood tests, to diagnose AFib.
There are four main types of AFib: paroxysmal AFib, persistent AFib, long-term persistent AFib, and permanent AFib. Each type is defined by how long AFib symptoms last and their severity.
Many of the symptoms of AFib overlap with other, more serious conditions such as heart attack or stroke. In fact, having AFib means you are nearly five times more likely to have a stroke than someone without AFib. This is because blood clots can develop during AFib. These blood clots can subsequently break off into the bloodstream and become stuck in an artery leading to the brain.
Because individuals with AFib have an increased risk for heart attack and stroke, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of both conditions.
Symptoms of a heart attack include:
The acronym FAST can help you remember the warning signs of a stroke:
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart attack and your risk of stroke, including taking certain medications and making lifestyle changes.
Treatments for atrial AFib focus on resetting the heart’s rhythm, controlling the heart rate, and preventing blood clots. Treatment options for AFib include cardioversion, a procedure to reset the heart rhythm; surgery; and medications like anticoagulants (blood thinners) and anti-arrhythmic drugs. Lifestyle changes like exercise can also help manage AFib and your overall heart health.
Read more about treatments and medications for atrial fibrillation here.
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