Everything You Should Know About AFib

Your heart is a rhyth­mic organ. With its rec­og­niz­able sound (“lub dub, lub dub”), it beats oxy­gen-rich blood to the rest of your body. While its rhythm is cru­cial to its func­tion­ing, many peo­ple expe­ri­ence some­thing called an arrhyth­mia — or a prob­lem with the rhythm of how your heart beats. 

The most com­mon type of arrhyth­mia is called atri­al fib­ril­la­tion, also known as AFib.

Source: Nation­al Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Despite how com­mon AFib is, it shouldn’t be ignored. This type of arrhyth­mia can lead to hos­pi­tal­iza­tions, heart fail­ure, stroke, and death. Know­ing the signs of AFib and how it can be pre­vent­ed can save your life. 

Here’s every­thing you should know about AFib, includ­ing how it’s diag­nosed and treated. 

What Exact­ly is Atri­al Fibrillation? 

Your heart has four cham­bers, which are the sec­tions of your heart through which blood flows. There are two upper cham­bers (called the atria) and two low­er cham­bers (called the ventricles).

In a heart that beats nor­mal­ly, blood starts pump­ing at the right atri­um, pass­es through the right ven­tri­cle, then goes to the lungs to get oxy­gen. Then, it comes back to the heart, into the left atri­um, and through the left ven­tri­cle. Final­ly, it pumps out to the rest of the body. 

If you have atri­al fib­ril­la­tion, the beat­ing in the left upper cham­ber (left atri­um) is abnor­mal. This means that your blood doesn’t flow as it should. 

AFib can hap­pen peri­od­i­cal­ly, or it can hap­pen continuously.

Atri­al Fib­ril­la­tion and Stroke

AFib is a major risk fac­tor for stroke. This is because AFib can cause blood to pool in your heart, which can lead to blood clots. About 1 in 7 strokes are caused by AFib. 

A stroke relat­ed to atri­al fib­ril­la­tion occurs when a clot forms in the heart where atri­al fib­ril­la­tion is occur­ring (left atri­um), which then moves out of the heart and pos­si­bly to the brain. Any kind of stroke can lead to brain dam­age, long-term dis­abil­i­ty, or death. Stroke caused by AFib is usu­al­ly more severe than with oth­er caus­es.

Deter­min­ing if You Have AFib

Diag­nos­ing AFib is cru­cial to get­ting the right treat­ment and pre­vent­ing fur­ther com­pli­ca­tions. How­ev­er, not only can AFib symp­toms be sub­tle, but they can also be non-existent. 

If you do expe­ri­ence signs of AFib, they can include:

  • Heart pal­pi­ta­tions (flut­ter­ing, rapid, or pound­ing heart)
  • Irreg­u­lar heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Extreme tiredness/​fatigue
  • Light­head­ed­ness
  • Short­ness of breath
  • Low blood pressure
  • Syn­cope or pass­ing out 

Symp­toms of AFib may occur occa­sion­al­ly, or they may be more fre­quent. As you age, AFib episodes may get longer, hap­pen more often and can become more symptomatic.

If you think you might have atri­al fib­ril­la­tion, talk to your health­care provider. Find a car­di­ol­o­gist near you to dis­cuss your symptoms.

Part of know­ing whether or not you have AFib cen­ters on you pay­ing atten­tion to your body. If you notice any AFib symp­toms, keep track of when and for how long they occur. This can help your health­care provider iden­ti­fy the next steps, which may include a phys­i­cal exam and a review of your fam­i­ly his­to­ry. They may also use tests like an elec­tro­car­dio­gram (EKG), which mea­sures the elec­tri­cal activ­i­ty in your heart, or a Holter or event mon­i­tor, a portable EKG that mea­sures your heart’s activ­i­ty as you go about your day. 

With all of this infor­ma­tion, your provider can assess your risk of AFib and poten­tial com­pli­ca­tions, which will help deter­mine treat­ment options. 

How is Atri­al Fib­ril­la­tion Treated?

If your health­care provider diag­noses you with AFib, there are a num­ber of treat­ment options. 

Treat­ment for AFib may include: 

  • Healthy lifestyle changes, such as reach­ing and main­tain­ing a healthy weight, lim­it­ing alco­hol, not smok­ing, treat­ing pos­si­ble sleep apnea and stay­ing active
  • Med­ica­tions to con­trol your heartrate, such as beta-block­ers or cal­ci­um chan­nel blockers
  • Med­ica­tions to con­trol your heart’s rhythm, such as antiar­rhyth­mic drugs
  • Med­ica­tions to pre­vent blood clots, such as blood thinners
  • Out­pa­tient pro­ce­dures, such as atri­al fib­ril­la­tion abla­tion which is per­formed through the veins in your legs lead­ing to your heart
  • Surgery, which is typ­i­cal­ly only done to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly treat anoth­er heart condition

Rec­og­niz­ing the Signs of an Emergency

If you do have AFib, it’s impor­tant to know that it can lead to seri­ous com­pli­ca­tions. If you see any of the fol­low­ing signs of an emer­gency, call 9−1−1 right away: 

  • Stroke signs, such as a sud­den headache or sud­den weak­ness, trou­ble speak­ing, walk­ing, or seeing
  • Med­ica­tion com­pli­ca­tions, such as bright red vom­it, bright red blood in your stool, or blood in your urine
  • Exces­sive bleed­ing or easy bruising
  • Heart attack signs, such as chest pain or pres­sure, squeez­ing, or full­ness in the cen­ter of your chest
  • Car­diac arrest signs, such as chest pain, short­ness of breath, nau­sea, or vomiting

Liv­ing With Atri­al Fibrillation

Find­ing out you have a heart con­di­tion can be scary, but atri­al fib­ril­la­tion is a man­age­able con­di­tion. By stay­ing on top of your fol­low-up appoint­ments, your health­care provider can mon­i­tor your con­di­tion, dis­cuss how to pre­vent future AFib events, and review what to do in an emergency. 

Togeth­er, you and your health­care provider can have a plan to live safe­ly with atri­al fibrillation. 

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