Atrial fibrillation, also known as AF or AFib, is a condition in which the heart does not beat normally. In AFib patients, the two upper chambers of the heart (called the atria) beat out of rhythm with the lower chambers. As a result, the heart works harder, is less efficient, and blood is not circulated properly throughout the body. Symptoms of AFib can include fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath.

While atrial fibrillation is a serious diagnosis, and an AFib “attack” can be scary, this condition is not fatal in itself. The real danger lies in potential complications from the condition.

Complications of AFib

The two most common complications of atrial fibrillation are stroke and heart failure, both of which can be fatal if not managed quickly and effectively.

Stroke

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries blood to the brain becomes blocked, depriving the brain of oxygen and sometimes causing permanent damage. According to the American Heart Association, people with AFib are about five times more likely than average to suffer a stroke. This is because blood clots tend to form when the blood is not circulated normally throughout the body. These clots can travel to the brain and become lodged in narrow blood vessels.

The Warning Signs

Warning signs of a stroke are often easily recognizable, and may include:

  • one side of the body feeling numb or weak
  • one side of the face drooping
  • suddenly feeling confused or lost
  • headache that comes on suddenly
  • loss of balance or coordination, or a sudden inability to walk
  • sudden difficulty seeing, especially in only one eye

What Can You Do?

If you think you are having a stroke, it is critical that you call an emergency number like 911, or find someone immediately who can do so for you. Time is your enemy during a stroke.

In non-emergency situations, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of stroke.

  • If you smoke, stop. Ask your doctor for help if you need it.
  • Cut back on caffeine and avoid other stimulants, including those “hidden” stimulants present in decongestants.
  • Eat right, exercise if you’re able, and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Properly manage any other health conditions, like high blood pressure or diabetes.

Heart Failure

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart is unable to pump enough blood to fully meet the body’s needs. In those with atrial fibrillation, this is generally because the heart can’t pump forcefully or efficiently enough to get the blood where it needs to go.

The Warning Signs

Heart failure develops over time, and symptoms may appear gradually. Some warning signs include:

  • fatigue
  • swelling due to fluid buildup in certain parts of the body, including the abdomen, legs, and ankles
  • shortness of breath or labored breathing 

What Can You Do?

People can live for many years with heart failure. It’s more common than you might think. An estimated 5.8 million Americans live with the condition, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. There are many ways to manage your symptoms, including: 

Slowing Its Progression

  • Keep your blood pressure in check.
  • Continuously monitor your weight and fluids.
  • Notify your doctor of any changes in symptoms.

Reducing Your Symptoms

  • Reduce fluid intake.
  • Reduce sodium consumption.
  • Take all medications prescribed by your doctor.

Improving Your Quality of Life

  • Stay as healthy as possible with diet and exercise.
  • Maintain friendships and continue hobbies you enjoy.
  • Seek out psychological help if you need it.

When you have AFib, it’s important to work closely with your doctor to manage your symptoms and reduce your risk of complications. With proper treatment, it’s possible to live a long and enjoyable life. But it’s up to you to follow your doctor’s recommendations and stay as healthy as you can.