Atrial fibrillation is a condition that causes the heart to beat irregularly. This phenomenon is called arrhythmia. Some people will have brief episodes, while others will experience arrhythmia on a consistent basis.
The heart is a muscle that acts like a pump to propel blood throughout the body. The blood can then carry essential oxygen and nutrients to every part of the body. During an episode of atrial fibrillation, the heart's contractions become chaotic, and the upper chambers quiver instead of contracting. This prevents the heart from pumping effectively. As a result, all of the body's organs, including the heart, receive less oxygen and tire more quickly. In addition, the heart will start beating very fast to compensate for its lack of efficiency.
Many people who suffer from atrial fibrillation have no symptoms or only experience symptoms during an episode of arrhythmia. Symptoms include:
- Palpitations (a stronger and faster heartbeat than normal)
- Shortness of breath (especially during exercise)
Causes and triggers
In the majority of cases, the causes of this condition are unknown. However, it has been shown that the risk of developing atrial fibrillation increases with age and the presence of other heart diseases. Although it is not known why, it is still possible for a young person with no history of heart disease to experience atrial fibrillation.
Any substance that stimulates the heart and forces it to work harder (e.g., caffeine or alcoholic drinks) can make the condition worse. The same is true for some types of very intense physical activity.
Some over-the-counter medications can make symptoms worse. Before taking any medication, ask your pharmacist whether it's right for you.
Treatment for atrial fibrillation depends on an individual's cardiac risk factors and symptoms. There is no cure for the condition, but it can be controlled with medication and, in some cases, a pacemaker.
Atrial fibrillation causes blood to flow poorly through the heart, and some blood may collect in the heart's chambers. This can lead to the formation of small clumps of blood (clots). These clots may then be carried with the rest of the blood through the body and block the blood vessels. If a clot becomes lodged in the brain, it can cause a stroke. To prevent this, medications can be used to keep clots from forming.
Treatment for atrial fibrillation also aims to reduce the risk of heart failure by regulating the heart's rhythm. It also helps improve the patient's comfort by easing symptoms.
The risk of complications associated with atrial fibrillation can be reduced by maintaining certain healthy lifestyle habits. Here are a few examples:
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Abstaining from smoking
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Reducing stress levels
When should I see a health care professional?
Speak with your health care provider if you experience any of the following:
- A stronger and faster heartbeat than usual
- Weakness or persistent fatigue
Seek emergency medical attention (call 911) if you have:
- Stroke symptoms:
- Numbness in the face
- Impaired speech
- Impaired vision
- Loss of balance
- Heart attack symptoms:
- Tightness in the chest
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath