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What is Atrial Fibrillation (A-Fib)?

Updated on August 12, 2015

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial Fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm that can occur any time during your life, but is seen more often in the elderly population. Atrial fibrillation will cause you to have an irregular heart rate. In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart (known as the atria) are not pumping normally. The normal pacemaker of the heart is not working properly, or is being overridden by the chaotic signals of the atria.

People with atrial fibrillation can lead normal lives. Usually your doctor will want you to take medication for your atrial fibrillation. Sometimes this is to control how fast your heart will beat, sometimes it is a blood thinner to help keep clots from forming.

Heart Picture by: J. Heuser

What causes Atrial Fibrillation?

Many times, the reason for atrial fibrillation is never discovered by your doctor. Heart disease is associated with atrial fibrillation, hand in hand with hypertension (high blood pressure). Obesity, very prevalent in today's day and age, is also a risk factor, along with sleep apnea.

Truth be told, most of the risk factors seem very related. Obesity, heart disease, sleep apnea, and hypertension are frequently found together, and each contributes to the other.

The lone risk factor which might be unrelated is alcohol abuse. Moderate alcohol consumption is not associated with atrial fibrillation. Doctors have even promoted red wine for some health benefits.

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

There are a lot of symptoms with atrial fibrillation that mimic other problems. My father in law was suddenly tired and had difficulty keeping his head up. Considering his symptoms, I was leaning more towards a stroke than A-Fib.

Dizziness and chest palpitations are also common. Some people experience chest pain or shortness of breath. Some people experience no symptoms at all. Sometimes your heart will beat very quickly. This is called rapid ventricular response, or RVR. This can be very dangerous and cause many problems.

If you know how to take your pulse, you may be able to tell if your heart is irregular, which is also a sign of atrial fibrillation. You can take your pulse by finding your radial pulse on your wrist, on the thumb side. Most people will have a pulse between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Your pulse should also be regular.

Paroxysmal vs Chronic Atrial Fibrillation

Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation comes on suddenly, but will revert back to your normal rhythm with treatment (or even spontaneously). Do not count on your atrial fibrillation being paroxysmal, because atrial fibrillation causes an increased chance of having a stroke or heart attack. Always seek medical attention.

Chronic Atrial Fibrillation means you will always have A-fib. Your doctor will probably put you on a blood thinner to help reduce the chances of having a stroke or heart attack. Blood thinners will increase your chance of bruising, sometimes to the point that even slight bumps will bruise. Your doctor will send you for blood tests periodically to both get the correct dosage, as well as periodically making sure your blood isn't too thin. If you are unable to clot at all, any sort of trauma is a very serious problem.

Treatments for Atrial Fibrillation

You might be prescribed medicine to control your heart rate. Atrial fibrillation rates can get very fast, which will cause problems with your blood pressure and heart. This is not always necessary.

If your atrial fibrillation is new, your doctor may decide to try to convert you back to a regular heart rhythm. This may involve medication, or cardioversion, which involves an electric shock. I have both cardioverted and defibrillated (related) patients. It isn't pleasant, but the short term discomfort is worth the lesser likelyhood of a stroke or heart attack in the future, in my opinion.

Your doctor will probably also prescribe a blood thinner such as coumadin, or Xarelto. This will cause you to bruise easily. Any cuts or scrapes you get will bleed much more. You will also require routine testing to make sure your blood levels of coumadin aren't too high. If your levels get too high, any injury could be potentially life threatening, because your body will not be able to stop the bleeding.

Atrial Fibrillation is not the end of the world.

People with atrial fibrillation can live a normal, active life. You may need to adjust some of your habits, and take a few more medications, but you will be able to go out and enjoy life, whether that is dancing, golfing, traveling, visiting family or whatever your interests are.

Atrial fibrillation does have some risks to your health, but with proper care you can live a very fulfilling life.

You do lose a significant amount of heart function if you have atrial fibrillation, but your body will compensate if you have it for a significant amount of time.

It is very frequently found in the elderly population. Your doctor or cardiologist might describe it as an "irregular" heartbeat. Are you on coumadin or other blood thinner?

Do you have atrial fibrillation?

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    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 

      4 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      No, but my husband did. It's more common than I'd realized. Interesting lens-thanks for sharing the info.

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