Posted June 23, 2015 by Tyler L. Taigen, M.D.
Atrial fibrillation (also known as AF or AFib) is the most common abnormal heart rhythm and increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. An estimated three million Americans have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.
In a normal heart, the four chambers of the heart beat in a steady, rhythmic pattern. Atrial fibrillation causes the upper chambers of the heart (atria) to quiver or twitch rapidly (fibrillate) in an irregular, disorganized rhythm. The atria may beat as often as 500 times per minute — five times faster than normal.
When AFib occurs, instead of one electrical impulse moving through the heart, many impulses begin in the atria and have difficulty making their way through the AV node. This happens as a result of the structure of the heart and its electrical system changing over time as we age. Often, as the electrical pathway changes during the aging process, one or more "triggers" may develop, causing the development of electrical circuits which send extra impulses to the heart muscle at a faster than normal rate. These extra electrical signals cause the heart to beat in a fast, disorganized and inefficient way.
Different patients have different symptoms. Some patients describe AFib as feeling like skipped heartbeats, followed by a thud and a speeding up or racing of the heart. Others describe it as an erratic heartbeat, strong heart palpitations or simply a rapid heart rate. Others have chest and throat pressure that mimics a heart attack. And many simply report feeling tired or not having the same level of energy to get through the day when in AFib.
The first time, it can be very scary and you may wonder, "Is this a heart attack?" It may leave you dizzy, faint, light-headed, breathless, weak or exhausted. For some people, AFib doesn't stop and may continue for hours, days, weeks or even years.
While atrial fibrillation itself is usually not life threatening, if left untreated, the effects of AFib can be potentially life threatening. AFib makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently. With the blood moving more slowly throughout the body, it increases the chances for a blood clot to form. If a clot is pumped out of the heart and travels to the brain, it could cause a stroke. This is the cause of about 15 out of every 100 strokes, according to the Heart Rhythm Society.
If you experience any of these symptoms, be sure to call your doctor. Summa Cardiovascular Institute welcomes the opportunity to partner with you and your doctor to provide the highest quality cardiovascular care for your atrial fibrillation.
Tyler L. Taigen, M.D.
Summa Physicians Inc. - Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology
AFib Program Director
Summa Cardiovascular Institute