What is atrial fibrillation? — Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm problem (figure 1). The condition puts you at risk of stroke and other problems as well as death. Another term for atrial fibrillation is "A-fib."
In people with A-fib, the electrical signals that control the heartbeat are abnormal. The top 2 chambers (there are 4 chambers) of the heart stop pumping blood as strongly as normal. When this happens, the blood can start to form clots. These clots can travel to the brain through the blood vessels and cause strokes.
In some people, A-fib never goes away. In others, A-fib can come and go, even with treatment. If you had A-fib in the past, but have a normal heart rhythm now, ask your doctor what you can do to keep A-fib from coming back. Some people can reduce their chances of having A-fib again by:
Controlling their blood pressure
Avoiding or limiting alcohol
Cutting down on caffeine
Getting treatment for an overactive thyroid gland
Getting regular exercise
Losing weight (if they are overweight)
What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation? — Some people with A-fib have no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include:
Feeling as though your heart is racing, skipping beats, or beating out of sync
Mild chest "tightness" or pain
Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or like you might pass out
Having trouble breathing, especially with exercise
Is there a test for atrial fibrillation? — Yes. If your doctor or nurse suspects you have A-fib, he or she will probably do a test called an electrocardiogram. This test, also known as an "ECG," measures the electrical activity in your heart.
How is atrial fibrillation treated? — In some cases, A-fib goes away on its own, even without treatment. But many people do need treatment.
Treatment can include 1 or more of these:
Medicines to control the speed or rhythm of the heartbeat
Medicines to keep clots from forming
A treatment called "cardioversion," which involves applying a mild electrical current to the heart to make the rhythm regular again
Treatments called "ablation," which use heat ("radiofrequency ablation") or cold ("cryoablation") to destroy the small part of the heart that is sending abnormal electrical signals
A device called a pacemaker that is implanted in your body and sends electrical signals to the heart to control the heartbeat
What will my life be like? — Most people with A-fib are able to live normal lives. Still, it is important that you take the medicines your doctor prescribes every day. Taking your medicines as directed can help reduce the chances that your A-fib will cause a stroke. It's also a good idea to learn what the signs and symptoms of a stroke are (figure 2).
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Mar 30, 2020.
Topic 15327 Version 16.0
Release: 28.2.2 - C28.105
© 2020 UpToDate, Inc. and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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