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Learning About Atrial Fibrillation

Erratic impulses in heart during atrial fibrillation and resulting EKG

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (say "AY-tree-uhl fih-bruh-LAY-shun") is a common type of irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Normally, the heart beats in a strong, steady rhythm. In atrial fibrillation, a problem with the heart's electrical system causes the two upper chambers of the heart (called the atria) to quiver, or fibrillate.

Atrial fibrillation can be dangerous. This is because if the heartbeat isn't strong and steady, blood can collect, or pool, in the atria. And pooled blood is more likely to form clots. Clots can travel to the brain, block blood flow, and cause a stroke. Atrial fibrillation can also lead to heart failure.

This condition also upsets the normal rhythm between the atria and the lower chambers of the heart. (These chambers are called the ventricles.) The ventricles may beat fast and without a regular rhythm.

What are the symptoms?

Some people feel symptoms when they have episodes of atrial fibrillation. But other people don't notice any symptoms.

If you have symptoms, you may feel:

  • A fluttering, racing, or pounding feeling in your chest called palpitations.
  • Weak or tired.
  • Dizzy or light-headed.
  • Short of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • Confused.

You may notice signs of atrial fibrillation when you check your pulse. Your pulse may seem uneven or fast.

What can you expect when you have atrial fibrillation?

At first, spells of atrial fibrillation may come on suddenly and last a short time. They may go away on their own or with treatment. Over time, the spells may last longer and occur more often. They often don't go away on their own.

How is it treated?

Treatments can help you feel better and prevent future problems, especially stroke and heart failure.

Your treatment will depend on the cause of your atrial fibrillation, your symptoms, and your risk for stroke. Types of treatment include:

  • Heart rate treatment. Medicine may be used to slow your heart rate. Your heartbeat may still be irregular. But these medicines keep your heart from beating too fast. They may also help relieve symptoms.
  • Heart rhythm treatment. Different treatments may be used to try to stop atrial fibrillation and keep it from returning. They can also relieve symptoms. These treatments include medicine, electrical cardioversion to shock the heart back to a normal rhythm, a procedure called catheter ablation, and heart surgery.
  • Stroke prevention. You and your doctor can decide how to lower your risk. You may decide to take a blood-thinning medicine such as aspirin or an anticoagulant.

What is a heart-healthy lifestyle for atrial fibrillation?

You can live well and help manage atrial fibrillation by having a heart-healthy lifestyle. This lifestyle may help reduce how often you have episodes of atrial fibrillation.

Don't smoke. Avoid second-hand smoke too.
Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your heart.
Be active.
Talk to your doctor about what type and level of exercise is safe for you.
Eat a heart-healthy diet.

These foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, lean meat, fish, and whole grains. Limit sodium, alcohol, and sugar.

Avoid alcohol if it triggers symptoms.

Stay at a healthy weight.
Lose weight if you need to. Losing weight can help relieve symptoms.
Manage other health problems.
These problems include diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or drug use, talk to your doctor.
Manage stress.
Options like yoga, biofeedback, and meditation may help.

Where can you learn more?

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