What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a type of abnormal heart rhythm. In AFib, the heart’s two upper chambers (atria) beat irregularly. Instead of beating in a normal, consistent pattern, the atria may quiver rapidly. As a result, some blood that should be moving from the atria to the lower chambers (ventricles) pools in the atria. This can form a clot, which can clog an artery that carries blood to the brain, resulting in a stroke.
AFib is the result of an electrical problem in the heart. Every time your heart beats, an electrical signal emerges from a group of cells called the sinus node. The signal passes through the atria, causing them to contract and send blood down to the ventricles.
The electrical signals start somewhere other than the sinus node in a heart with AFib. That means the atria beat in an irregular pattern, and not in unison with the ventricles.
Some people with mild AFib don’t have noticeable symptoms, but other AFib patients may be very aware of their rapid or irregular heartbeat. If you have AFib, you might feel fluttering in your chest. Or, you might feel your heart thumping with every beat.
When you have AFib, your heart isn’t pumping blood as effectively to all parts of your body. This can cause you to feel weak, lightheaded, or especially tired when exercising.
Doctors can use an echocardiogram (ECG) to diagnose atrial fibrillation. An ECG is a screening test that uses several small electrodes placed on the body to send signals back to a computer. The test measures the electrical activity of the heart, so an ECG can recognize if your heart is in AFib.
ECGs are usually performed when a person is lying down. However, sometimes the test is done while you walk on a treadmill to see how the heart responds during exercise.
One of the first ways your doctor might treat AFib is with medications designed to reset your heart’s rhythm. This process is also called cardioversion. Your doctor may give you drugs orally or through an intravenous line.
Cardioversion with drugs is often done in the hospital, but people who have periodic episodes of AFib can also use cardioversion drugs at home.
Cardioversion can also be done using electrical patches or paddles placed on your chest. You’ll be sedated before the procedure so that you don’t feel the electric shock.
The devices send a small electrical charge to the heart to stop it beating for a moment. In a successful electrical cardioversion, your heart has a normal, healthy pattern when it starts beating again.
Your doctor may try an ablation via a pulmonary vein (also called pulmonary vein antrum isolation) if other methods of treating AFib don’t work. Ablation can be done in open surgery, but it can also be done using a catheter. In this procedure, your doctor will guide a catheter with a special electrical tip through a vein in your leg or arm to your heart. When the catheter reaches the source of the erratic electrical activity, radio frequency energy is sent through the catheter to deaden and scar that tiny portion of pulmonary vein.
After an ablation procedure, an AFib patient may sometimes require a pacemaker. This device sends low-energy electrical signals to your heart to help keep it in a healthy rhythm.
A pacemaker is surgically implanted under the skin and includes wires that extend to the heart. The wires are attached to a pulse generator, which contains a tiny computer and a battery pack.
Pacemakers are also given to patients who have slow heart rates.
Living with atrial fibrillation
While AFib can be a serious medical concern, you can live a long time with it. You may have to take medications and undergo procedures to help manage AFib, but your quality of life doesn’t have be ruined because of the condition.
Regular exercise, a heart-healthy diet, and no smoking will also help you adjust to life with AFib. As with any heart condition, it’s critical to follow your doctor’s advice and report any symptoms to your doctor.