Atrial fibrillation


Overview and symptoms

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a type of heart arrhythmia. Arrhythmias are irregular or abnormal heartbeats.

Some people describe atrial fibrillation as a “quivering heart” because it feels like your heart is fluttering in your chest.

A single episode of brief arrhythmia typically isn’t harmful. Atrial fibrillation itself isn’t always dangerous and often resolves on its own.

However, it’s often a sign of underlying heart issues, and can lead to complications and increase the risk of a heart attack if left untreated. If it occurs frequently, AFib also dramatically increases your risk of stroke.

Find a Doctor at Dignity Health to assess your heart health and risk for atrial fibrillation.

Symptoms

Not everyone with AFib has symptoms, and you may not realize you have AFib unless your doctor finds it during a physical exam.

When AFib symptoms are present, the most common is a fluttering feeling in your chest, or chest pain, confusion, dizziness, or feeling tired or short of breath.

Other people experience a sudden thud or dropping sensation, “heart palpitations,” or symptoms that mimic a heart attack.

Seek immediate medical care or call 911 if you have chest pain or any other signs of a heart attack.

Causes

The leading cause of AFib is damage to the heart’s electrical system, which leads to irregular heartbeats. Conditions that can cause this damage include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack
  • Heart congenital disabilities
  • Pericarditis
  • Heart surgery
  • Heart valve disease
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Previous heart surgery

If you have underlying damage to your heart muscle, some lifestyle factors are more likely to trigger episodes of arrhythmia, such as:

  • Heavy or “binge” drinking alcohol (defined as drinking over 8 drinks in one session for men, or over 6 for women)
  • Excessive intake of caffeine from energy drinks, caffeine pills, tea, coffee, or soda
  • Taking stimulants, including recreational drugs such as amphetamines or cocaine
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • High-intensity exercise

Types

Depending on what causes it and the severity of the condition, atrial fibrillation may be:

  • Occasional: AFib and its symptoms come and go, and may last for minutes or up to hours.
  • Persistent: AFib doesn’t go away on its own, but treatment can bring back a normal heart rhythm.
  • Permanent: Your heart rhythm can’t be restored to normal, but treatment can control your heart rate and decrease your risk of stroke.

Risk factors

People who are at higher risk for heart disease are typically also at higher risk for atrial fibrillation.

Risk factors include:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • Age
  • Thyroid disease
  • Sleep apnea
  • Asthma
  • Lung disease, lung cancer, pneumonia, or pulmonary embolism
  • Family history of AFib
  • Diabetes
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning

Prevention

Atrial fibrillation is often hereditary or caused by aging or non-preventable underlying heart conditions.

At the same time, maintaining a healthy heart can reduce the risk of AFib for many people. Do this by:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Reducing salt intake
  • Maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Attending regular preventive care appointments to monitor your heart as you age

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