Nov 23, 2021

A Guide to Understanding Atrial Fibrillation

A heart arrhythmia is a problem with how your heart is beating, whether irregular, too fast, or too slow. There are five main types of heart arrhythmias; Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF) is the most commonly diagnosed and treated.

The American Heart Association calculates that around 2.7 million Americans are currently living with AFib. According to some studies, that number is expected to reach around 12.1 million people by 2030.  

So what is AFib? How do we prevent it from affecting us? We put together this guide to help you better understand this heart disease.

What is AFib? 

AFib is an irregular/rapid heart rhythm that can cause blood clots in the heart. It also increases the risk of stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications.

Usually, your heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat. With AFib, the heart's upper chambers (atria) beat out of sync with the heart's lower chambers (ventricles). 

AFib is considered a form of tachycardia, meaning it causes a rate of more than 100 heart beats per minute. 

Types of AFib

There are a few types of AFib:

  • Paroxysmal fibrillation- Symptoms can come and go, lasting a few minutes to hours at a time. There are occasions when symptoms can occur for as long as a week and repeat frequently. While symptoms may clear up on their own, some may need the occasional treatment. 

  • Persistent AFib- Symptoms can last longer than seven days, and treatment is necessary to help your heart rhythm go back to normal. 

  • Long-standing AFib- A chronic type of AFib in which symptoms may be continuous and last longer than 12 months.

  • Permanent AFib-  In this type of atrial fibrillation, the heart can't restore its natural rhythm. Patients and their doctors will weigh pros and cons of seeking treatment to try to return the heart to normal. If they choose to not continue treatment to return the heart to normal, they may instead turn to long-term medication to help manage heart rate and lower risk of stroke.

  • Nonvalvular AFib - When AFib is not caused by a heart valve issue. 

Symptoms of AFib

People with AFib may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • General fatigue

  • Extreme fatigue when exercising 

  • Rapid and irregular heartbeat

  • Heart palpitations/fluttering

  • Dizziness/lightheadedness

  • Shortness of breath

  • Anxiety

  • Weakness/ feeling faint

  • Confusion

  • Sweating

  • *Chest pain/pressure

*Chest pain or pressure can be a sign of a heart attack. You should call 911 immediately.  

People living with AFib often describe it as if their heart feels like it's flip-flopping, skipping a beat, or banging on their chest wall. However, some people never experience any symptoms, and the disease is only detectable during a physical exam. 

Causes and risk factors of AFib

While there is no one cause of AFib, it is associated with many conditions and diseases, including:

Age and high blood pressure are the two highest risk factors for developing Afib. Some other health conditions that can put you at risk are:

How is AFib diagnosed?

The average heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute for an adult. A doctor may order one or several tests to diagnose AFib and exclude other conditions. These tests include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) is the primary test used by healthcare professionals to diagnose AFib. Measuring the heart's electrical activity, an ECG can show if the heart is beating too fast, too slow, or not at all. 

  • Blood tests are used to eliminate thyroid issues and identify other substances in the blood that can lead to AFib.  

  • Holter monitor is a tiny, portable ECG device carried in a pocket or worn on a belt/shoulder strap during regular daily activities to continuously record the heart's activity for 24 hours or longer.

  • Event recorder is also a portable device that records your heart activity. However, unlike a Holter monitor, it only registers at certain times for a few minutes at a time and is usually worn for around 30 days. Often there is a button to push when you feel symptoms, and some devices will automatically record when an irregular heart rate/rhythm is recognized.

  • Echocardiogram is a test that uses sound waves to produce images of the heart's valves and chambers and pumping motion. 

  • Stress test uses an EKG to monitor your heart while exercising on a treadmill or stationary bike.

  • Chest X-ray creates images that help a doctor see the condition of the lungs and heart.

Treatment options for AFib

Treatment options will depend on the severity and length of your AFib, as well as any other health conditions you may have. It's important to consider your health goals when discussing your AFib treatment choices with your doctor. 

Treatment options may include:

  • Prescription medications, like Sotalol HCL, to control the heart's rhythm and rate

  • Blood-thinning medicines to prevent blood clots from forming to reduce the risk of having a stroke

  • Surgery

  • Lifestyle changes to manage AFib risk factors and symptoms

Final thoughts

By choosing a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce the risk of heart disease and AFib. Some essential heart-healthy tips include sustaining a nutritious, balanced diet, getting regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and managing stress. 

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