According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2.5 million Americans have atrial fibrillation (AFib), a type of cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. In a healthy heart, a well-choreographed design moves blood into the atria and then into the ventricles, the lower chambers of the heart. From there, blood flows around the body and back to the heart. Electrical impulses instruct each part of the heart to beat in sync with the other parts of the heart.

However, the electrical signals are misdirected in hearts affected by AFib. This causes the heart’s two upper chambers, known as the atria, to beat chaotically, preventing blood from flowing through the heart correctly. Blood clots are a life-threatening problem associated with AFib.

How Does AFib Cause Blood Clots?

Atria that beat irregularly don’t complete a full contraction during each heartbeat cycle. This can be dangerous for several reasons. One of the biggest concerns is a blood clot. When the atria beat improperly, blood doesn’t flow through the heart as it should. This can cause blood to pool in the heart’s chambers, possibly resulting in blood clots.

AFib isn’t always a life-threatening condition on its own. Many people with AFib will live their entire lives without knowing they have it. However, some people with AFib may experience serious medical complications, such as a blood clot.

Blood clots are dangerous. They can contribute to breathing problems, inconsistent blood supply, and even stroke. Patients with AFib are nearly five times more likely to suffer a stroke than people who don’t have the condition.

Symptoms of AFib Blood Clots

When clots are in the bloodstream, they can travel throughout the body. The symptoms you may experience depend on where the blood clot is in your body. For example, a blood clot that blocks the flow of blood in your brain can cause a stroke, kill brain cells, or cause permanent damage to the brain. In some cases, the clot can even lead to death.

A blood clot isn’t the only potential sign of AFib, however. Before a blood clot begins to cause problems, it may cause other symptoms that are more easily identified. These common symptoms of AFib include:

  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • feeling faint or extreme fatigue
  • chest pain
  • general weakness
  • sweating
  • heart palpitations, or a racing heartbeat

Not everyone with AFib will experience these, or any, symptoms. It’s entirely possible for a person with AFib to live without knowing about their condition. However, a lack of symptoms doesn’t mean a lack of problems. AFib increases your risk for blood clots and stroke, even if it’s not causing any symptoms.

Preventing AFib Blood Clots

Your doctor may prescribe blood thinners to help prevent  blood clots from forming. Medications may also be able to restore the heart’s normal rate and rhythm. Restoring your heart’s rhythm will reduce your risk of blood pooling as well.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend a procedure that can treat AFib. Two such procedures are catheter ablation and electrical cardioversion. These procedures alter the physical design of the heart and correct the rhythm.

Lastly, treating underlying conditions that contribute to AFib is important. Other heart diseases further increase your risk for blood clots from AFib. These conditions include heart disease, infections, and heart defects. It’s important to address both AFib and any conditions that may compound the problem.

Know Your Risk

Most cases of AFib are caught during a routine electrocardiogram (EKG). This simple test monitors your heart’s electrical activity. Any irregularities will be evident to a doctor who looks at the test results.

However, talk with your doctor if you’re concerned that symptoms you’re experiencing may be the result of AFib. They may request an EKG to check for the heart problem or refer you to a cardiologist, a doctor who specializes in treating heart conditions.

If you do have AFib, work with your doctor to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to reduce your risk of complications, including blood clot and stroke. The best way to avoid serious complications later on is to get ahead of them before they become problematic.