Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an irregular heart rhythm. It begins in the upper two chambers of your heart called the atria. These chambers may quiver rapidly or beat irregularly. This prevents blood from effectively pumping into the ventricles.
The rapid impulses from the atria may cause the ventricles to pump too rapidly. This further decreases your heart’s effectiveness.
An irregular heart rate can cause your heart to race or flutter. Because the heart isn’t pumping normally, you may experience the following symptoms:
- palpitations or a racing sensation in the heart
- chest pain, discomfort, or pressure
- shortness of breath
- exercise intolerance
- abdominal pain
These symptoms can last anywhere from several minutes to several hours. If you have chronic AFib, these symptoms can be persistent.
Symptoms may develop occasionally and can sometimes resolve without medical treatment (paroxysmal AFib). In this case your doctor or cardiologist may prescribe medication to control your symptoms.
The main goal of controlling your AFib symptoms is to prevent recurrent episodes.
When your heart is stimulated or excited, it can trigger AFib episodes. Monitoring your exercise, stress, caffeine intake, and alcohol use can help prevent AFib episodes. Losing weight can also help improve symptoms of AFib.
There are two main options when it comes to controlling symptoms: Bringing your heart rhythm back to normal and controlling the heart rate. Medications are typically prescribed for both options.
Blood thinners or anticoagulants, such as non-vitamin K oral anticoagulants (NOACs), help prevent strokes caused by the irregular beating of your heart. Beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and digoxin (Lanoxin) are used to control the heart rate.
Surgical procedures are another option to return your heart rate to normal. Talk to your doctor about what type surgery is right for you if you have persistent AFib, blood clots, or a history of stroke.
Your doctor may decide to do a radiofrequency ablation or insert a pacemaker if you have a slow heart rate. This device sends electrical impulses to the heart muscle to generate a normal heart rate.
A stroke is one of the most serious complications that can result from AFib. The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association recommend the F.A.S.T. acronym to detect the signs of a stroke:
- F: face drooping
- A: arm weakness
- S: speech difficulty
- T: time to call 911
Having AFib increases your chances of having a stroke. You can reduce your risk for stroke by taking the following actions:
- maintain a healthy weight
- exercise on a regular basis
- stop smoking
- avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol