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How Serious Can Atrial Fibrillation Get?

Atrial fibrillation or A-fib is a common heart condition. It is caused by abnormal electrical signals within the heart that affect the speed and rhythm of the heartbeat. Although any condition that affects the heart can be scary, the good news is A-fib is generally not life-threatening and manageable. Common symptoms of A-fib include a rapid or irregular heartbeat, feeling tired or short of breath, dizziness and fainting, and chest pains. Some people experiencing A-fib will not notice any symptoms at all. Doctors will often categorize A-fib by how long the episodes last and if they stop on their own. Paroxysmal or occasional A-fib can last for a few minutes to a few hours and usually stops on its own. Persistent A-fib involves episodes that last seven days or more and usually requires medical treatment to stop. Permanent A-fib occurs when the heart rhythm can’t be restored. This type usually requires medication to control the heart rate.

Causes of A-Fib

Atrial fibrillation or A-fib is caused by an irregular heart rhythm. Each heart has four different chambers. The two on top are the atria, while the lower ones are the ventricles. A-fib occurs when the upper chambers (atria) beat irregularly and out of rhythm with the lower chambers (ventricles). This also causes the heart to beat very fast. People with A-fib may have a heart rate between 100 to 175 beats each minute. This is very high compared most normal heart rates of around 60 to 100 beats each minute. A-fib can occur in people without any known risk factors. This is called lone A-fib. For most people, risk factors are present. Some risk factors for A-fib include:

  • Age (60 years of age or older)
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease or a history of heart attack or heart surgery
  • Obesity
  • Heavy drinking
  • Lung diseases
  • Sleep apnea
  • Thyroid disease (overactive thyroid)
  • Family history of A-fib

Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation

A doctor can diagnose A-fib by reviewing the symptoms the patient is having and ordering tests. A common test used to diagnose A-fib is the electrocardiogram (ECG). This is a non-invasive test that uses small electrodes placed on the chest and arms to record electrical signals sent out by the heart. The doctor will also look for any underlying health conditions that may be causing A-fib and require treatment.

Treatment for A-fib focuses on preventing the risk of stroke from blood clots and controlling the heart rhythm and rate. Blood thinners will often be prescribed to decrease the risk of blood clots forming during bouts of A-fib. Medications to control the heart rate can be prescribed. These will help control how fast the heart beats. Other medications can be used to help restore the heart to a normal rhythm. If medications don’t work to control the symptoms or frequency of A-fib episodes, the doctor may explore surgical options with the patient.

Potential Complications of Atrial Fibrillation

It is important to work with a doctor even if someone with A-fib has no symptoms. This is because untreated A-fib can cause a stroke or other heart problems. During episodes of A-fib, blood tends to pool in the upper chambers of the heart and can cause clots. This occurs because of the irregular rhythm of the heart. Unfortunately, these clots can travel from the heart to the brain causing a stroke. The risk of stroke with A-fib rises with other risk factors, such as age, diabetes, high blood pressure and previous stroke. This is why patients with A-fib are often put on blood thinning medications to lessen the chance of blood clots forming.

The other main complication of A-fib is heart failure. This risk increases if A-fib is not controlled. Heart failure occurs when the heart isn’t able to pump blood effectively. Over time, uncontrolled A-fib can weaken the heart and cause heart failure to occur. This is another reason why it is important to work with a doctor to manage A-fib.

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