Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib or AF, is an electrical disorder of the upper chambers of the heart. Though it’s not necessarily harmful by itself, having AFib increases your risk for other heart-related problems, as well as stroke. Read on to find out the effects atrial fibrillation can have on the body.

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What is AFib?

AFib affects the upper chambers of the heart, called the atria. It’s an electrical disorder that causes rapid electrical signals that may reach hundreds of beats per minute. These signals interfere with the ability of the upper chambers to contract in an organized way.

AFib has several possible causes. It’s the most common complication after heart surgery, according to the American Heart Association. AFib may also be brought on by untreated related conditions, such as high blood pressure.

In some cases, AFib may have no identifiable cause. While it can be managed by treatments, AFib can eventually lead to serious complications.

These complications can occur from decreased pumping action and passive blood flow. Blood can even pool within the heart. Some people with AFib have no symptoms, while others experience a wide range of symptoms.

AFib increases risk for heart-related disorders and stroke. Having AFib also puts you at a higher risk for additional disorders that affect your heart’s rhythm.

AFib can sometimes happen occasionally, and it may resolve on its own. However, AFib can be long-lasting — even permanent.

Cardiovascular and circulatory systems

When your heart’s electrical system is out of whack, the chambers lose their rhythm. A common symptom of AFib is the sensation that your heart is flopping around inside your chest, or simply beating irregularly, causing palpitations. You may become very aware of your own heartbeat.

Over time, AFib can cause the heart to weaken and malfunction. The heart’s ineffective contractions cause blood to pool in the atria. This can increase the risk of clotting.

As a result, you may experience:

  • shortness of breath
  • low blood pressure
  • chest pain

During an episode of AFib, your pulse may feel like its racing, beating too slowly, or beating irregularly.

Central nervous system

Having AFib increases your risk for stroke. When the heart fails to contract properly, blood tends to pool in the atria. If a clot forms, it can then travel to the brain, where it blocks the blood supply, causing an embolic stroke.

Early warning signs of stroke include severe headache and slurred speech. If you have AFib, your risk of stroke increases as you age. Other additional risk factors for stroke include:

  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • history of heart problems
  • previous strokes
  • family history of stroke

Blood thinners and other medications can lower these risk factors. Lifestyle measures can help make a difference, too. These include:

  • getting regular exercise
  • eating a low-salt diet if you have hypertension
  • maintaining a healthy weight
Knowing the signs of a stroke If you believe you're having a stroke, the National Stroke Association suggests using the term “FAST” to help you recognize common stroke symptoms.

Respiratory system

Your lungs require a steady supply of blood in order to function properly. Irregular pumping of the heart can also cause fluid to back up in the lungs. Symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty performing physical activities
  • fatigue

Skeletal and muscular systems

With AFib, you may have a buildup of fluid in your legs, ankles, and feet. It’s also not uncommon to experience irritability and muscle weakness during previously routine activities. You might find an overall reduced ability to exercise due to the effects of AFib.

Other symptoms

Other symptoms include weight gain, lightheadedness, and a general feeling of discomfort and fatigue. You may also notice increased urination.

AFib may not cause any symptoms at all — some people don’t know they have this condition until it’s discovered by their doctor. This is why, on top of monitoring your own health and symptoms, you should make it a point to make your recommended exams and see your doctor regularly.