What is Atrial Fibrillation?
The heartbeat is controlled by electrical signals that travel through the heart in a coordinated pattern. Changes or damage to heart structure or its electrical signaling system can disrupt the heart’s normally well-regulated rhythm. Atrial fibrillation, also called AFib, is one of the most common heart rhythm disorders, or arrhythmias. According to the American Heart Association, AFib affects at least 2.7 million Americans.
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Atrial Fibrillation Overview
Learn About AFib
The exact cause of AFib is unknown. Several factors increase the risk of developing AFib, including:
- advanced age
- congenital heart defects
- heart conditions such as coronary artery disease
- other health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, thyroid disorders, chronic kidney disease or lung disease
- use of substances such as caffeine, alcohol or tobacco
- viral infections
There are four main types of atrial fibrillation.
- Paroxysmal occurs occasionally and usually stops on its own. Episodes may be as brief as a few seconds or may last up to seven days.
- Persistent lasts for more than a week and often requires treatment to return to normal.
- Long-term persistent continues to occur for more than 12 months despite treatment.
- Permanent does not respond to repeated treatment attempts.
Atrial fibrillation is further classified on the involvement of the heart valves, a distinction that may help guide treatment decisions.
- Valvular occurs in people with artificial heart valves or a heart valve disorder such as mitral stenosis.
- Non-valvular AFib is an irregular heartbeat caused by something besides a heart valve, such as high blood pressure or an overactive thyroid.
Atrial fibrillation does not always cause obvious symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include:
- chest pain
- feeling that the heart is pounding, racing or fluttering
- lightheadedness or fainting
- shortness of breath
How is AFib Diagnosed?
In addition to a physical examination and review of medical history, diagnostic tests for AFib may include:
- blood tests to look for underlying health conditions
- echocardiograms to evaluate heart structure and function
- electrocardiograms, which record electrical activity inside the heart
- event recorders such as Holter monitors to collect heart rhythm data for 24 hours or longer
- stress (exercise) tests that monitor heartbeat on a treadmill or stationary bicycle
Customized Treatment Options
Learn About Atrial Treatments
Treatments for AFib focus on restoring heart rhythm and reducing the risk of complications. Options may include:
- medications such as beta blockers and calcium channel blockers to control the rate and rhythm of heartbeat, and blood thinners to prevent blood clots from forming inside the heart
- cardioversion, a procedure that uses an electrical shock to reset heart rhythm
- catheter ablation or radiofrequency ablation, minimally invasive procedures that destroy abnormal tissue inside the heart
- devices such as pacemakers or implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) to regulate heart rhythm
- maze surgery, a procedure used to create new electrical pathways inside the heart
Your healthcare provider may also recommend treatment for any underlying health conditions responsible for causing AFib.