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Atrial Fibrillation... What you should know

Posted October 25, 2021 by Sahil P. Attawala, MD and Lori O'Shell APRN-CNP

Heart with monitor lines

Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib) is a chaotic, or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), at least 2.7 million Americans are currently living with AFib and it is estimated that by 2030 more than 12 million Americans will have AFib.

With normal electrical conduction, impulses originate from an area in the top right corner of the heart known as the sinus node. A wave of electricity then spreads across the atria traveling to the lower two chambers through a specialized conducting pathway known as the AV node. This action causes the heart muscle to contract and relax.

In atrial fibrillation, you have rapid chaotic firing of electrical impulses from the atria which causes the rhythm to be irregular and in most cases fast. The normal heart rate is 60-100 BPM.

Because of the irregular and chaotic flow of blood through the heart with AFib, small blood clots can form in the heart chambers. These clots can travel through the bloodstream to the brain, causing a stroke. About 15–20 percent of people who have strokes have Atrial Fibrillation. 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. It is a serious progressive condition that usually cannot be cured, however, with early detection it can be successfully managed.

Summa Health System strives to help patients develop a better understanding of Atrial Fibrillation so they can live a normal, active life.

Who does AFib affect?

Although Atrial Fibrillation is very prevalent in the aging population, it can affect younger individuals as well.  According to the CDC, risk factors for AFib include but are not limited to the following:

  • Advancing age
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Heart failure
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Moderate to heavy alcohol use
  • Smoking
  • Enlargement of the chambers on the left side of the heart

Untreated sleep apnea and excessive alcohol consumption are also prevalent among patients with AFib.

What are the signs and symptoms of AFib?

Some people are completely symptom-free with AFib but many experience some or many of the following:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart palpitations (rapid, fluttering, or pounding)
  • Lightheadedness/Dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Change in exercise tolerance

If treated, can AFib recur?

The likelihood of AFib returning depends on the associated conditions of each patient.

Sometimes AFib appears due to medical conditions that are temporary and can be treated. An example would be an infection, an imbalance of the body’s electrolytes, or a thyroid disorder. In these instances, once the acute medical condition is treated, AFib is less likely to recur in the short term. However, if a patient has other long-term chronic medical conditions that predispose them to AFib, e.g., hypertension, obesity, sleep apnea, etc., AFib is more likely to recur. If these conditions remain untreated, AFib is likely to occur more often and progress to a permanent condition.

What are the treatment options?

There are many options available to patients with AFib and the goals of treatment are to:

  • prevent blood clots with anticoagulants
  • restore your normal heart rate
  • restore your normal heart rhythm

These goals can be achieved by scheduling an appointment with your doctor and developing a plan that best suits your needs.


Options to Request an Appointment

If your situation is an emergency, call 911.