When something exciting or unexpected happens, we sometimes say, “My heart skipped a beat!”
But if you notice that your heart often seems to skip beats, flutter, or quiver, it may be a sign of a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation (sometimes called AFib).
What is atrial fibrillation?
The heart has four chambers called ventricles and atria. In AFib, the atria, or upper chambers of the heart, beat irregularly, or fibrillate, and reduce the amount of blood that pumps out. This can lead to a pooling of blood in the atria. When this happens, it may result in the formation of a clot that can lead to a stroke.
What are the symptoms of AFib?
Sadip Pant, MD, FACC, RPVI, medical director of interventional cardiology at Saint Anne’s Hospital, explains, “Some people do not have symptoms of AFib. For others, though, they may feel one or more symptoms. One of the most common reported by patients is a palpitation, ‘thumping,’ or quivery feeling in the chest.”
Other symptoms may include:
- general fatigue
- a rapid and irregular heartbeat
- shortness of breath and anxiety
- faintness or confusion
- fatigue when exercising
How is AFib diagnosed?
There are a number of tools to help diagnose AFib.
“Your doctor will listen to your heart’s rate and rhythm, take your pulse and blood pressure, and listen to your lungs,” says Dr. Pant. Your doctor also may follow up with other tests, such as:
- an EKG to record your heart’s electrical activity, including the speed and rhythm of your heartbeat and the strength and timing of your heart’s electrical signals.
- a special portable monitor that records your heart’s electrical activity for 24 hours.
- a stress test to determine your heart’s capability, an echocardiogram to provide a moving picture of your heart, an electrophysiology test, and/or blood work to check for other causes.
How is AFib treated?
Once AFib is diagnosed, your doctor will determine the best course of treatment for your particular condition. This may include medication, surgery, and/or lifestyle changes that can help:
- restore your heart to a normal rhythm
- reduce a high heart rate
- prevent blood clots
- manage your risk factors for stroke
- prevent additional heart rhythm problems
- prevent heart failure
“Lifestyle recommendations can play a big role in managing AFib,” says Dr. Pant. Some of these are:
- regular physical activity
- a heart-healthy diet that’s low in salt, saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol
- managing high blood pressure
- managing stress
- avoiding excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine
- no smoking
- controlling cholesterol
- maintaining a healthy weight
With available treatment, patients with atrial fibrillation are expected to have normal life expectancy and good quality of life.
What are some reversible causes of AFib?
The good news is: Some causes of AFib can be reversed.
Amit Sharma, MD, FACC, FSCAI, medical director of cardiovascular programs for Steward Health Care-Central Florida, notes that there are several causes of AFib that can be reversed with proper medical treatment and lifestyle changes.
“Untreated blood pressure, excessive alcohol consumption, elevated blood sugar, untreated thyroid disorders, obesity, and untreated sleep apnea all can be treated to help reverse the occurrence of AFib,” says Dr. Sharma. “In addition, reducing excessive consumption of saturated fat and trans-fat and certain over-the-counter weight loss drugs that can put one at higher risk of AFib can be helpful.”
How common is AFib?
It’s estimated that AFib affects about 1-2% of the population, or 5-6 million people. The incidence of AFib goes up significantly with age, too: fewer than 2% of those age 65 or younger experience AFib, while 9% of adults older than 65 develop AFib.
Is AFib hereditary?
Having a family member with a history of AFib may put you at greater risk, but there are also a number of other risk factors that can trigger AFib. Some of these are:
- high blood pressure over a period of time
- being an older adult
- underlying heart disease, including history of heart attack, valve problems, or complications after heart surgery
- certain chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, and an overactive thyroid
If you feel symptoms of AFib, or you want to learn more, see your doctor. Untreated AFib can raise your risk for problems like heart attack, stroke, and heart failure, which can shorten your life expectancy.
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