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Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib) is an 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.
Normally, your heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat to move blood into the ventricles. The sinus node, a group of cells in the upper right chamber of your heart (right atrium), produces the signal that starts each heartbeat. The signal travels through a connecting pathway between the upper and lower chambers called the atrioventricular (AV) node. The movement of the signal causes your heart to squeeze (contract), sending blood to your heart and body.
In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly and inefficiently. As a result, the AV node is bombarded with impulses trying to get through to the ventricles. The ventricles also beat rapidly, but not as rapidly as the atria, because not all the chaotic impulses can get through. This inefficiency can cause blood clots to form. Blood clots can cause a stroke. About 15-20 percent of people who have strokes have AFib. Many patients with this condition are put on blood-thinning medications to prevent clots from forming.
Even though untreated atrial fibrillation doubles the risk of heart-related deaths and is associated with a five-fold increased risk for stroke, many patients are unaware that AFib is a serious condition.
Sometimes people with AFib have no symptoms, and their condition is only detectable upon physical examination. Others may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
Abnormalities or damage to the heart's structure is the most common cause of atrial fibrillation. Possible causes of atrial fibrillation include:
However, some atrial fibrillation people don't have any heart defects or damage; a condition called lone atrial fibrillation. In lone atrial fibrillation, the cause is often unclear, and serious complications are rare.
Your doctor may review your signs and symptoms, medical history and conduct a physical examination to diagnose atrial fibrillation. Your doctor may order several tests, including:
Your atrial fibrillation treatment will depend on how long you've had it, how bad your symptoms are, and the underlying cause. Generally, the treatment goals are to:
Medications are the first line of defense to control your heart rhythm. If that doesn't work, you may need a medical procedure using catheters or surgery.
One procedure is called cardioversion. Cardioversion can be done in two ways:
Sometimes medications or cardioversion don't work. In those cases, your doctor may recommend a procedure to destroy the area of heart tissue that's causing the erratic electrical signals and restore your heart to a normal rhythm. These options can include:
Take your medications as prescribed and have regular follow-up appointments with your doctor. Tell your doctor if your symptoms worsen.You may need to make lifestyle changes that improve the overall health of your heart, especially to prevent or treat conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
Presbyterian’s Heart and Vascular team has many different options to help you manage your heart condition. The team performs various diagnostic tests and procedures to help form an accurate diagnosis and create individualized treatment plans for your heart health needs. Depending on the type of heart condition you have and its underlying cause, the team can recommend a wide variety of treatment options; these may include lifestyle modifications, medications, and procedures. Our cardiologists and cardiovascular surgeons work closely together for cases in which surgery is the best treatment option. We also offer a customized cardiac rehabilitation program at our Healthplex, where clinically appropriate, which can improve your endurance and exercise tolerance, as well as improve heart-related symptoms. Your cardiologist will work with the rehabilitation team to create a plan that will be tailored to your individual health needs.