The heart is a muscle that pumps blood and oxygen through the body. The heart is divided into 4 chambers (2 atria and 2 ventricles). To work effectively, the chambers must empty in a specific sequence. An electrical system controls the entire process by making sure that the heart maintains a regular, rhythmic beat. At rest, the human heart generally beats 60 to 80 times a minute.
Atrial fibrillation is a condition that causes part of the heart, namely the atria, to contract in an uncoordinated manner. When this occurs, the heart has difficulty pumping blood towards the organs, including the heart, which results in less oxygen for the organs, causing them to tire more rapidly. Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia. In fact, the word "arrhythmia" means irregular rhythm and occurs when the heart's electrical impulses no longer fire properly, making the heart beat irregularly.
What causes atrial fibrillation?
There are certain risk factors that predispose individuals to atrial fibrillation. The most common risk factors include:
- congenital heart defect
- heart surgery
- heart attack
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?
Those suffering from atrial fibrillation could experience or notice some of the following symptoms:
- irregular heart rate
- shortness of breath
- hyperhidrosis (intense sweating)
- increased fatigue
- feeling of pressure or discomfort on the chest
How can I find out if I am suffering from atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation is a condition that is diagnosed by a physician. The physician will perform a routine examination and may recommend more in-depth tests. These additional tests may include blood tests (to make sure that the problem is not related to a thyroid problem, for example) and an electrocardiogram. An electrocardiogram is used to measure the electrical activity in the heart. And finally, an ultrasound of the heart may also be performed to further examine the heart.
What kind of lifestyle changes should I make if I have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation?
If you suffer from atrial fibrillation, it is important for you to avoid anything that may provoke additional stimulation and cause the heart to work harder. Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants that greatly affect the heart. The same applies for certain types of highly demanding physical exercises.
Several over-the-counter medications should also be avoided. For example, people with atrial fibrillation should avoid decongestants which are typically taken to clear stuffy noses caused by the flu or a cold. Generally speaking, individuals with atrial fibrillation should use nasal decongestants in their spray form rather than taking them in pill form. Before taking any medication, it is recommended that you consult with your pharmacist.
Is there a cure for atrial fibrillation?
NO. There is no cure for atrial fibrillation but it can be controlled with medication or a pacemaker. There are two treatment approaches. The first approach involves controlling the frequency of the heartbeat or re-establishing the heart's rhythm and the second one involves taking anticoagulant drugs to thin the blood.
Why take anticoagulants?
Atrial fibrillation causes poor blood flow through the heart which increases the risk of blood collecting or pooling in one of its chambers. This can, in turn, lead to the formation of blood clots. If swept into the bloodstream, blood clots can then travel through the body and potentially block a blood vessel. The consequences of such a blockage can be serious and even deadly depending on where the blockage occurs. Anticoagulants prevent this type of situation from occurring. Such treatments require very close medical supervision.
For more information or for support :
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada