Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition characterized by an irregular, often quickened heartbeat that seems to bounce or fibrillate. It occurs when the beating of the chambers of the heart is irregular, interfering with the proper flow of blood to the heart's chambers.

Sometimes referred to as afib, it increases your risk of heart disease, including heart failure and stroke. Your risk of stroke is five times higher if you have atrial fibrillation.

Afib is a common type of arrhythmia, estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to affect at least 2.7 million people in the United States. Since atrial fibrillation can go unnoticed for years, as many as 6.1 million Americans may actually have the condition.

Who has atrial fibrillation?

While afib is not exclusively an age-related condition, it affects an estimated 10 percent of people over age 75. The condition can occur sporadically for no known reason, or it may develop as a result of strain on the heart valves, congenital heart defects, or unhealthy lifestyle choices that negatively affect heart function.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

Health conditions that can lead to atrial fibrillation include:

Other risk factors for atrial fibrillation include:

  • Advanced age.
  • Congenital heart defects.
  • Diabetes.
  • Family history.
  • Heart valve defects.
  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland).
  • Lung diseases.
  • Obesity.
  • Past heart surgery.
  • Sleep apnea.
  • Smoking.
  • Excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption.

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation

Afib symptoms can vary by type and severity. Some of the most common symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).
  • Heart palpitations (e.g., racing, fluttering or pounding heart).
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Weakness or fatigue.
  • Chest pain.
  • Water retention.
  • Stroke.

Diagnosing atrial fibrillation

Diagnosing atrial fibrillation begins with a comprehensive medical examination, blood tests, X-rays and other diagnostic heart tests such as:

  • Electrocardiogram, commonly referred to as an EKG or ECG. It uses electrode patches attached to the skin on the chest, arms and legs to record heart rhythm, check blood flow to the heart and detect other abnormalities in the heart's function.
  • Holter monitor, a battery-operated device that records heart activity, usually for a day or two.
  • Cardiac event monitor, a battery-operated device that records heart activity, usually for a few weeks to a few months.
  • Implantable loop recorder, a small device implanted under the skin of the chest. The recorder enables physicians to remotely track and monitor the heart's more infrequent rhythm and electrical abnormalities. The loop recorder can be used to monitor your heart function for up to three years.

Cardiologists monitor and record such information as heart:

  • Rate.
  • Rhythm.
  • Strength.
  • Electrical impulses.

Treating atrial fibrillation

Beyond treating underlying health conditions and making lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk and severity of atrial fibrillation, treatment options range from medication to minimally invasive medical and surgical procedures. The goals of each include controlling and normalizing heart rate and rhythm, preventing blood clots, and minimizing the risk of stroke.

Determining which treatment option is best depends on factors such as:

  • How long atrial fibrillation has been present.
  • The severity and type of symptoms.
  • The underlying health conditions or factors that may be causing atrial fibrillation.

Explore treatment options for atrial fibrillation.