Atrial fibrillation is a condition that causes the heart to beat abnormally.
Atrial fibrillation (commonly referred to as AFib) is the most common type of heart arrhythmia, or abnormal heartbeat. Normally, the sinoatrial or sinus (SA) node regulates the electrical impulses that cause the heart’s atria (upper chambers) to contract and force blood into the ventricles (lower chambers). The SA node also causes the ventricles to contract and pump blood out of the heart and to the rest of the body.
With atrial fibrillation, a number of electrical impulses fire at one time, causing a fast and chaotic heart rhythm. This rhythm prevents the atria from properly contracting and forcing blood into the ventricles. It also causes the ventricles to improperly contract, resulting in a rapid, irregular heartbeat.
Causes of Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is often caused by underlying heart disease, which might include:
- Cardiomyopathy - a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body
- Congenital heart defects - problems with the structure of the heart occurring at birth
- Coronary artery disease - hardening of the arteries of the heart
- Heart failure - weakening of the heart muscle
- Heart valve defects - problems with the valves in the heart
- Hypertension - high blood pressure
- Pericarditis - inflammation of the lining around the heart
- Pulmonary embolism - a blood clot in the lungs
Many individuals also begin experiencing atrial fibrillation following heart surgery. Some other potential causes of this condition include:
- Chronic lung disease - like emphysema
- Hyperthyroidism - overactive thyroid gland
- Viral infections
- Electrolyte or metabolic imbalances
- Obstructive sleep apnea - occasional start and stopping of breath while asleep
- Excessive use of alcohol or caffeine
- Use of certain drugs
- Genetic factors - family history
- High-dose steroid therapy - medications used for inflammation
In some cases, there’s no apparent cause of atrial fibrillation.
Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation can cause someone to experience:
- Heart palpitations
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling within the legs, ankles and feet
It’s important to remember that some individuals can have atrial fibrillation without experiencing any resulting symptoms.
Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation
A physician will perform a physical examination and may order an electrocardiogram (EKG) to confirm or rule out a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation. If symptoms are intermittent, a patient may be directed to wear a special event monitor for a certain amount of time. Additionally, blood tests, echocardiograms and sleep studies can all be useful when determining how to approach treatment.
Treatment for Atrial Fibrillation
It’s important to promptly treat atrial fibrillation. If left untreated, this condition can increase the risk of stroke and heart failure and cause damage to other areas of the body. Treatment is aimed at controlling the heart rate, regaining a normal heart rhythm, preventing the formation of blood clots and lowering the risk of stroke.
Physicians at Tampa General Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Institute often recommend that patients first make certain lifestyle changes, such as:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Limiting alcohol and caffeine consumption
- Quitting smoking
- Avoiding certain activities
Treatment may also require electrical cardioversion, medication and, in some cases, surgery.