Atrial Fibrillation

Dr. Alrich L. Gray // Central Montana Heart & Vascular Institute

Atrial Fibrillation AFib

Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib or AF) is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib.

What happens during AFib?

Normally, your heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat. In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly (quiver) instead of beating effectively to move blood into the ventricles.

If a clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream and lodges in an artery leading to the brain, a stroke results. About 15–20 percent of people who have strokes have this heart arrhythmia. This clot risk is why patients with this condition are put on *blood thinners.

Even though untreated atrial fibrillation doubles the risk of heart-related deaths and is associated with a 5-fold increased risk for stroke, many patients are unaware that AFib is a serious condition.

  • Only 33% of AFib patients think atrial fibrillation is a serious condition
  • Less than half of AFib patients believe they have an increased risk for stroke or heart-related hospitalizations or death

If you think you may have atrial fibrillation, here are some critical things you should know.

Know the Symptoms

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of irregular heartbeat. The abnormal firing of electrical impulses causes the atria (the top chambers in the heart) to quiver (or fibrillate). Sometimes people with AFib have no symptoms and their condition is only detectable upon physical examination. Still, others may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • General fatigue
  • Rapid and irregular heartbeat
  • Fluttering or “thumping” in the chest
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath and anxiety
  • Weakness
  • Faintness or confusion
  • Fatigue when exercising
  • Sweating
  • Chest pain or pressure

If you experience chest pain or pressure it is a medical emergency. You may be having a heart attack and you need to call 911 immediately.

Treatment Options

The treatment goals of atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib) start with a proper diagnosis through an in-depth examination from a physician. The exam usually includes questions about your history and often an EKG or ECG. Some patients may need a thorough electrophysiology study.

The severity, any other underlying medical issues you might have, and the length of the AF condition will determine the best treatment options for you.

Treatment options may include one or more of the following:

  • Medications
  • Nonsurgical procedures
  • Surgical procedures

Reducing Your Risk

To reduce your risk for the onset of AFib, maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle is always your best option. If you have been diagnosed with AFib, take medications if they are prescribed for you, and get proper treatment and management of your condition so you can reduce the risk of AFib’s harmful consequences.

What can I do to reduce my risk of complications associated with atrial fibrillation?

  • Get regular physical activity
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet, low in salt, saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol
  • Manage high blood pressure
  • Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine
  • Don’t smoke
  • Control your cholesterol
  • Maintain a healthy weight

Causes, Consequences, and Risks

Although atrial fibrillation can feel weird and frightening, an “attack of AFib” usually doesn’t have harmful consequences by itself. The real danger is the increased risk of a stroke. Even when symptoms are not noticeable, AFib can increase a person’s risks for stroke and related heart problems.

Sometimes the cause of AFib is not known. Other times, it is the result of damage to the heart's electrical system from other conditions, such as longstanding, uncontrolled high blood pressure or coronary artery disease. AFib is also the most common complication after heart surgery.

Usually, the most serious risk from AFib is that it can lead to other medical problems, including:

  • Stroke
  • Heart Failure
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Additional heart rhythm problems
  • Inconsistent blood supply

Overall, most of the risks, symptoms, and consequences of AFib are related to how fast the heart is beating and how often rhythm disturbances occur. For all the reasons listed above, it is important to work with your healthcare provider to determine your treatment needs and to understand your treatment options. It is also important to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle to help reduce your overall risks as much as possible.