Learning About Atrial Fibrillation

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What is atrial fibrillation?

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.

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. 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.

How is it treated?

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.

  • 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 your 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.

How can you live well with it?

You can live well and help manage atrial fibrillation by having a heart-healthy lifestyle.

To have a heart-healthy lifestyle:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods.
  • Be active. Talk to your doctor about what type and level of exercise is safe for you.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.
  • Manage stress.
  • Avoid alcohol if it triggers symptoms.
  • Manage other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
  • Avoid getting sick from influenza (the flu). Get a flu shot every year.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have symptoms of a stroke. These may include:
    • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
    • Sudden vision changes.
    • Sudden trouble speaking.
    • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
    • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
    • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or increased shortness of breath.
  • You feel dizzy or light-headed, or you feel like you may faint.

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.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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