Atrial fibrillation explained

Atrial fibrillation, commonly known as ‘Afib’, is a condition that causes the atria (the upper chambers of the heart) and the ventricles (the lower chambers of the heart) to beat out of sync. This is caused by a problem with the electrical signalling that tells the atria when to beat, making them fibrillate.

In the case of Afib, your heart rate can increase from the normal 60 to 100 beats per minute, to a racing 100 to 175 beats per minute. Your heart isn’t as effective at pumping blood and oxygen around your body when it’s in Afib, causing you to feel weak, breathless, dizzy and fatigued.

Those with the highest risk of having the condition are white men over the age of 60 who have a family member who has had Afib. It is sometimes linked to thyroid disorders or serious infections such as pneumonia, though it is most commonly triggered by conditions that put strain on your heart. These include problems with heart valves, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart attack or heart failure. Some heart surgeries such as a coronary artery bypass can also trigger Afib, although this is normally a short-term problem. 

Other lifestyle factors can increase your risk of the condition. These include smoking, drinking too much alcohol, illicit drug use, certain prescription medication and being overweight or obese.

If you experience Afib without any clear trigger, this is known as lone Afib. This is more common among people below 65 and requires treatment if it causes troubling symptoms.

Symptoms of Afib may be subtle and often go unnoticed. These symptoms include:

  • chest pain
  • a racing, fluttering or pounding heart
  • an uneven pulse
  • feeling lightheaded, dizzy or short of breath.

People with Afib are five times more likely to have a stroke. This is because your blood may become slow moving, which makes it more likely to clot. This may cause a stroke, if a blood clot travels to the brain.

If you feel any of these symptoms, call 000:

  • feeling faint with an uneven pulse
  • severe chest pains
  • numbness, slurred speech or other signs of a stroke.

If you suspect you have Afib, consult your doctor. An electrogram, which detects the electrical signals of your heart, is used to confirm whether or not you have Afib. Your doctor may also use an echocardiogram, ultrasound, or ask you to wear a device to monitor your heart rate throughout the day in order to allow them to better understand the problem.

If your Afib is caused by a treatable condition such as pneumonia, it will likely go away when the illness is addressed. However, if this is not the case, it will need to be corrected.

Mild Afib symptoms can be managed with medicines such as rhythm-control drugs and rate-control medications. Aspirin and other daily blood thinners may help to prevent blood clots and reduce the risk of stroke.

A cardioversion involves your doctor using electric shock to try and restore normal heart rhythm. You may need to take blood thinners both prior and post this procedure. However, if you have been experiencing Afib for more than 48 hours, a cardioversion can increase your chance of a stroke.

Ablation is a procedure that involves a specialist feeding a thin probe through a blood vessel to your heart. A laser, intense cold or radiofrequency is used to zap the area of tissue responsible for the faulty signals. This procedure does have some risks, so it is only done if the symptoms are serious and cardioversion and medicines haven’t worked to correct heart rate.

The maze procedure is a more serious surgery that is usually done during open heart surgery but can be performed through small openings. A series of small cuts are made in the tissue of the heart. This creates scar tissue that cannot conduct electrical current, meaning it stops Afib. In more serious cases a pacemaker may be required to regulate heartbeat.

Many people can live comfortably without Afib impacting their daily lives, managing symptoms such as shortness of breath, fainting and weakness. Checking your pulse every month to monitor your heartbeat can help you to detect infrequencies. If you are concerned about your heart rate or heartbeat, consult your doctor.

Have you experience atrial fibrillation? Do you worry that you are at risk of the condition?

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Liv Gardiner

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