Atrial fibrillation – often called AFib – is a serious heart-related condition that affects millions of Americans. AFib causes one’s heart to beat irregularly and often less efficiently. If left uncontrolled, this abnormal heart rhythm can result in serious complications such as stroke, blood clots and heart failure.
When someone is affected by AFib, they may describe a sensation such as their heart skipping beats, fluttering or beating with an extra intensity. They may also experience shortness of breath, dizziness or weakness. Others have no symptoms whatsoever.
A normal heartbeat consists of steady contractions and relaxations that begin in the upper chambers of the heart and move toward the lower heart chambers that are the main pumps of the heart. A normal heart rhythm is called sinus rhythm, resulting in 60 to 100 beats each minute. This steady heartbeat helps to efficiently push blood from the heart to the lungs and remainder of the body in a controlled manner.
When someone has AFib, however, the upper chambers of the heart quiver and cause the lower chambers of the heart to beat in a more random and often rapid pattern. This can cause blood to be pumped less efficiently through the lungs and body. A person with AFib may feel out of breath or very tired. When blood does not pump from the heart in an efficient way, heart failure can occur. AFib can also cause a blood clot to form and break free from the heart, possibly resulting in stroke.
“AFib can occur at any age, but is more common in older adults, as well as those with high blood pressure and/or other heart-related conditions," said Robert L. Abraham, M.D., a specialist in cardiology and electrophysiology associated with Vanderbilt Heart who performs procedures at Maury Regional Medical Center. "Sleep apnea has also been linked to AFib, so it is important to understand your risk for sleep disorders. Having a family history of AFib can further increase one’s risk. It is important to know that patients whose AFib is managed well can lead normal, healthy lives.”
Diagnosis of AFib typically occurs after an examination by a doctor as well as cardiac testing, such as an EKG. Your doctor will take your entire health into consideration to determine if any underlying conditions may be contributing to the abnormal heart rhythm.
If AFib is determined, a cardiologist may recommend treatment to control symptoms and reduce the risk for stroke. Medications, changes in diet or lifestyle or in some cases, procedures such as placement of a pacemaker or ablation of heart tissue can be helpful. There are now additional procedures to prevent stroke that can eliminate the need for stronger blood thinners.
If you think your heartbeat may be irregular, or you are experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness and weakness, ask your doctor if AFib could be a concern.
Robert L. Abraham, M.D., is a specialist in cardiology and electrophysiology associated with Vanderbilt Heart and member of the medical staff at Maury Regional Medical Center in Columbia, Tennessee. He is board certified in cardiovascular disease and clinical cardiac electrophysiology