Understanding Atrial Fibrillation

Under normal circumstances, the human heart pumps to a strong and steady beat—in fact, more than 100,000 heartbeats each day! But if you have atrial fibrillation, or AFib, the heart doesn’t always beat or keep pace the way it should. Many people with AFib say they can feel their heart racing, fluttering or skipping beats.

AFib is the most common heart rhythm disorder (arrhythmia). A major concern with AFib is that it also makes blood clots in the heart that can travel and cause strokes or block flow to other critical organs. In fact, people with this condition are five times more likely to have a stroke than people without the condition. It can also lead to heart failure. But finding and treating AFib early on can help you avoid these problems.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Your heart’s electrical system tells your heart when to contract and pump blood to the rest of your body. With AFib, these electrical impulses don’t work the way they should, short-circuiting in a sense. As a result, the heart beats too quickly and irregularly.

AFib is sometimes called a quivering heart. That’s because the two upper parts of the heart (called the atria) quiver. When this happens, the normal communication between the upper and lower chambers of the heart is disrupted and becomes very disorganized. Because of this, many people with AFib feel zapped of energy fairly quickly or notice being out of breath simply walking up one flight of stairs. That’s because you may not be getting enough oxygen; the heart isn’t able to squeeze enough nutrient-rich blood out to the body.

There are 3 types of AFib:

  • Paroxysmal – comes and goes and generally stops on its own
  • Persistent – lasts more than a week and can become permanent
  • Permanent – the heart’s normal rhythm can’t be restored

Some cases of AFib are due to a heart valve problem, while some are not.

Because your heart beat is out of sync, blood can collect in the chambers of the heart. When this happens, blood clots can form and can travel to the brain causing a stroke. Strokes related to AFib tend to be more severe and deadly.

What puts you at risk for AFib

Several factors make AFib more likely.

  • Older age, although it can happen at any age
  • Conditions that place added strain on the heart, including:
  • high blood pressure
    • previous heart attack
    • heart surgery
    • Valve disease
    • heart failure
  • Other illnesses such as obesity, sleep apnea or hyperthyroidism
  • Family history
  • Drinking too much alcohol (routinely having 3 or more drinks a day or binge drinking)

Episodes of AFib are often triggered by certain activities. These may include: 

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Too much caffeine or other stimulants
  • Periods of severe stress
    • the stress of the body fighting infection
    • the stress of recent surgery

Pay attention to what might make symptoms of AFib worse, so that you can share this information with your health care team.

Treatments

The good news is that with the right treatment, you can live a good life with AFib. But you need to be in tune with your heart and body. Untreated, atrial fibrillation can lead to blood clots, stroke and other heart-related problems, including heart failure.

Your treatment will likely depend on:

  • Your age
  • Your symptoms and the frequency of episodes
  • Whether your heart rate is under control
  • Your risk for stroke
  • Other medical conditions, including if you already have heart disease

Treatment of AFib focuses on lifestyle changes and either rate control or rhythm control. Therapies to prevent blood clots and stroke are also important.

Lifestyle changes may include:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich foods, lean meats and fish and unsaturated fats like olive oil
  • Limiting alcohol and caffeine
  • Exercising regularly – aim to get 30 minutes of physical activity most days
  • Managing stress levels
  • Not smoking
  • Taking your medication(s) as directed and managing other conditions

In addition to lifestyle changes, treatments often include medications and/or procedures.

If you live with AFib, it’s critical that you know the warning signs of stroke so that you can act fast. Call 9-1-1 right away if you have any sudden:

  • Numbness or weakness in your face, arms or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Trouble walking or loss of balance or coordination
  • Trouble seeing out of one or both eyes
  • Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Severe headache

Be sure other people in your life are aware of these signs as well.