Atrial fibrillation (say "AY-tree-uhl fih-bruh-LAY-shun") is the most 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 parts of the heart (the atria) to quiver, or fibrillate. Your heart rate also may be faster than normal.
Atrial fibrillation can be dangerous 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.
Treatment for atrial fibrillation helps prevent stroke and heart failure. It also helps relieve symptoms.
Atrial fibrillation is often caused by another heart problem. It may happen after heart surgery. It may also be caused by other problems, such as an overactive thyroid gland or lung disease.
Many people with atrial fibrillation are able to live full and active lives.
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:
You may notice signs of atrial fibrillation when you check your pulse. Your pulse may seem uneven or fast.
At first, spells of atrial fibrillation may come on suddenly and last a short time. It may go away on its own or it goes away after treatment. This is called paroxysmal atrial fibrillation.
Over time, the spells may last longer and occur more often. They often don't go away on their own.
Treatments can help you feel better and prevent future problems, especially stroke and heart failure.
The main types of treatment slow the heart rate, control the heart rhythm, and help prevent stroke. Your treatment will depend on the cause of your atrial fibrillation, your symptoms, and your risk for stroke.
You can live well and help manage atrial fibrillation by having a heart-healthy lifestyle.
To have a heart-healthy lifestyle:
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if you have any problems.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
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Current as of: May 17, 2016
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
& Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine & John M. Miller, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
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