Atrial Fibrillation Overview
Atrial fibrillation is an arrhythmia that occurs when the heart’s sinus node loses its intrinsic pacing capability. Instead, erratic electrical impulses originate from the upper chambers (atria), causing them to contract irregularly. The signals then pass through the atrioventricular node (AV node) to the lower chambers (ventricles), disrupting the normal rhythm of the heart.
The heart in atrial fibrillation often responds by beating too fast, with potentially dangerous results. A normal heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. A heart in atrial fibrillation beats 100 to 175 times per minute. Though the heart is working hard, it is inefficiently pumping blood through the body, and may restrict oxygen delivery. The poor pumping function may also leave blood to collect in the atria, where clots can form. If a clot is pumped through the heart and into the body, it could reach the brain and cause a stroke.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia, affecting more than 2.2 million Americans each year. It affects both men and women, and it is more common in an older population.
The most common symptom of atrial fibrillation is heart palpitations, though some patients report dizziness, fatigue and weakness, chest pains, shortness of breath, confusion and lowered blood pressure. Symptoms may come and go, or they may be chronic. For many patients, however, atrial fibrillation remains asymptomatic.
Atrial fibrillation may be caused by another underlying health condition. On occasion, a patient may develop lone atrial fibrillation, which occurs without any more common, predisposing risk factors.
If you are experiencing symptoms of atrial fibrillation, it is imperative that you see your WellStar Cardiac Network Physician as soon as possible for treatment. Those treated successfully for atrial fibrillation will live healthy, productive lives.
Some people with atrial fibrillation have no symptoms. For those who do, symptoms may be ongoing, or may start and stop suddenly. If you experience the following symptoms, seek immediate medical attention from your WellStar Cardiac Network Physician:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat or pulse
- Skipped heartbeats
- Chest palpitations (common)
- Lightheadedness or fainting
- Extreme fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain, or angina (seek immediate medical attention at an emergency room)
Atrial fibrillation typically results from some underlying health condition. Rarely, an otherwise healthy person develops the condition, called lone atrial fibrillation. Certain diseases, conditions or factors can raise your risk for atrial fibrillation. Such factors include:
- Age (Your risk of atrial fibrillation increases as you get older.)
- Heart disease, including coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, congestive heart failure, pericarditis and rheumatic heart disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Hyperthyroidism or other metabolic disorder
- Chronic lung disease
- Congenital heart defects
- History of heart attack
- Viral infections
- Concomitant pneumonia, surgery or other illness
- Sleep apnea
- Heart surgery, such as coronary artery bypass surgery
- Some medications and stimulants, such as caffeine or tobacco
- Alcohol use (binge drinking)
- Family history of atrial fibrillation