Also called Afib, atrial fibrillation is a chronic medical issue that causes the heart to beat irregularly, substantially increasing the risks for heart attack and stroke. The heart contains four chambers - two upper chambers called atria and two larger lower chambers called ventricles. Normally, electrical signals in the atria occur in a normal rhythm, helping the ventricles to pump out blood to the lungs and to the rest of the body. In atrial fibrillation, these electrical signals become irregular and erratic, and the upper and lower chambers call out of “sync,” resulting in irregular blood flow that can increase the risk of developing dangerous clots.
Afib can be caused by structural defects in the heart or by damage in the heart muscle that interferes with normal electrical signaling and causes the heart to beat irregularly. Several factors can contribute to a higher risk of Afib, including:
high blood pressure
coronary artery disease
valve problems or valve disease
prior heart attack
long-term use of certain medicines
Very mild cases of Afib may cause few or no symptoms and remain undiagnosed until a cardiac exam and evaluation reveals the condition. More pronounced cases cause symptoms like:
shortness of breath
rapid or “racing” heartbeat, palpitations or “flip-flopping” sensations in the chest
dizziness or fainting
problems when exercising
Atrial fibrillation treatment focuses on helping the heart resume a normal, healthy rhythm to prevent the formation of dangerous blood clots. Often, Afib can be successfully managed with medication, but sometimes, surgery may be needed to repair damage to a heart valve or to address the specific part of the heart where the irregular electrical signaling is occurring. Pacemaker implantation may be recommended in some patients who have a slow heartbeat due to Afib. Ongoing office visits will help ensure the condition remains under control so patients can avoid serious medical consequences like heart attack and stroke, and frequent blood testing will be needed to optimize medication dosing.
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