What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia.
Your heart has an electrical system that is responsible for regulating blood flow. In a normal heartbeat, electrical impulses are responsible for contracting the chambers of the heart in sequence; the two upper chambers (atria) contract, followed by the two lower chambers (ventricles). A problem with a heart's electrical system can cause the atria to quiver. This quivering disrupts the rhythm between the upper and lower parts of the heart, creating an irregular heartbeat.
Atrial Fibrillation (commonly known as AF or AFib) is a heart disease that affects nearly 3 million Americans. Occurrences of AFib often increase as we get older.
- Older than 60 years of age
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease
- Previous heart surgery
- Family history
- Existing heart conditions, including heart failure, previous heart attacks, heart disorders present at birth and other abnormal heart rhythms
- Other chronic health conditions, including diabetes, lung disease, thyroid disease and sleep apnea
- Alcohol abuse
If you have symptoms of an irregular heartbeat it is important to see your physician for an accurate diagnosis. An irregular heartbeat itself may not be life threatening and can be managed, but side effects of AFib can lead to a stroke or heart failure.
- Fatigue or consistent lack of energy are the most common symptoms
- You may feel your heartbeats changing between a fast and slow heart rate for no apparent reason
- Heart palpitations (racing or fluttering feeling)
- Dizziness (faint or light-headed)
- Chest discomfort (pain, pressure or tightness in the chest)
- Shortness of breath (difficulty breathing during normal activities or even at rest)
- Increased urination
Diagnosis & Evaluation
Tests to diagnose AFib are non invasive. Your primary care physician may be able to perform some of these tests or will refer you to a specialist.
- Holter monitor: These devices record the electrical activity of your heart. Patients typically wear these home, which allows the monitor to record your heart's activity the entire time you're wearing it. Continuous monitoring allows your doctor to review heart problems that might only be noticeable during certain activities.
- Event monitor: Similar to a Holter monitor, but instead of recording continuously, you make recordings when you feel symptoms.
- Echocardiogram (click here to learn more about the various types of echocardiograms)
- Cardiac computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A test that uses x-rays to take detailed pictures of the heart. MRI uses a magnetic-based technology without x-ray to achieve similar results.
AFib can be uncomfortable, but there are many treatment options available, including:
- Medical management: After an AFib diagnosis, our specialists determine if medical management is right for you. Medical management is often successful in preventing a stroke and controlling your heart's rhythm.
- Cardiac catheter ablation: If AFib symptoms cannot be relieved through medical management, another option is catheter ablation. Ablation is a one day invasive procedure that uses radio frequency to cauterize (burn) and disrupt the heart tissue causing the irregular heartbeat. Watch a video on catheter ablation for AFib.
- Cryoablation: This is the latest in ablation treatment for AFib. Like traditional ablation, it is a minimally invasive one day procedure. The difference is that cryoablation uses cold to disrupt the irregular heartbeat. For the right patient, cryoablation can be more effective and minimize other possible side effects of radio frequency ablation (cardiac catheter ablation).
- Pacemaker implantation: In certain instances, when preventing AFib is not possible, a pacemaker can be placed to help control symptoms.
- Surgery: Cardiac surgeons can perform complex ablation surgery for patients whose symptoms cannot be managed by catheter ablation. This surgery is often performed in conjunction with other heart surgery, such as bypass or valve surgery.
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