Over the course of an average lifespan, your heart will beat over 300 billion times. While the heart can be damaged in numerous ways throughout our lifetimes, it remains one of the muscles in our bodies that never stops functioning, pumping oxygen-rich blood into our entire bodies to fuel its many functions. So when something in the heart goes wrong, it can be devastating for the entire body.
In normally functioning hearts, the heart contracts and relaxes to a regular rhythm as it pulls blood in and pushes it out. This combination of contraction and relaxation is known as a “heartbeat.” When the heart is affected by a condition or disease, this beat can change into an irregular rhythm. One of the most common irregular rhythms is known as atrial fibrillation (sometimes known as AFib). In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly, comprising blood flow to the body and essential organs like the brain.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heartbeat and often feels like a fluttering, thumping or quivering in the chest. Patients may have a faster than normal heartbeat and be short of breath. Patients may also have dizziness, weakness, confusion, sweating, fatigue with exercising, sweating, chest pain or pressure. People living with atrial fibrillation also have an increased risk for stroke. While atrial fibrillation is characterized by irregular heartbeats, there are several different types of atrial fibrillation that physicians can classify under the umbrella of irregular heart rhythms.
Paroxysmal fibrillation is a type of atrial fibrillation where the heart returns to its normal rhythm (i.e., regular rhythm) within a week of starting. Symptoms are intermittent and unpredictable, and patients who have this type of atrial fibrillation may only have symptoms a few times a year. Over time, paroxysmal fibrillation may become a more lasting or chronic type of atrial fibrillation, and can increase risk of stroke up to five times more than someone who does not suffer from atrial fibrillation. Persistent atrial fibrillation is a type of atrial fibrillation that lasts longer than seven days and does not resolve on its own like paroxysmal fibrillation. It requires some sort of medical intervention or treatment.
Long-standing atrial fibrillation is a type of atrial fibrillation that lasts a year. Symptoms are consistent for 12 months or longer and also require some sort of medical intervention or treatment. Permanent atrial fibrillation is a type of atrial fibrillation that lasts indefinitely, and the condition needs to be managed throughout lifestyle, but never completely treated. Patients with atrial fibrillation are at a much higher risk for stroke than patients with no atrial fibrillation, or even other heart conditions.
Atrial fibrillation is a dangerous medical condition and can lead to increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. If a clot is released and enters the bloodstream, it may lodge in an artery leading to the brain or another chamber of the heart. Blocked arteries leading to the brain can result in a stroke, and about 20% of people who suffer from strokes have atrial fibrillation. Untreated atrial fibrillation doubles the risk of heart failure and increases the risk of strokes by five times.
While there are only a few ways to attempt to prevent atrial fibrillation, like keeping as healthy as possible, the condition can and will develop in everyone from children to adults. Any person can develop atrial fibrillation, but the likelihood of atrial fibrillation increases with age. Those with high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea, and a family history of atrial fibrillation are at the highest risk of developing atrial fibrillation. Athletes can also develop atrial fibrillation that is triggered by a rapid heart rate. Atrial fibrillation is rare in children, but can occur.
Physicians may order an EKG, electrophysiology study, a stress test, or assign heart monitors to diagnose atrial fibrillation. Diagnostic tests may also include questions about family history and risk factors that you may have. While atrial fibrillation cannot be prevented absolutely, there are ways to reduce the risk for developing additional problems caused by the irregularity. After a patient is diagnosed, a physician will control the rate and rhythm of heartbeats using medications like beta blockers and calcium channel blockers, prescribe blood thinners to prevent clots from blocking arteries that lead to the brain or heart, and managing risk factors for heart failure and stroke. In some cases, atrial fibrillation is due to an underlying cause or condition. For example, some patients have atrial fibrillation symptoms after consuming a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Some patients who suffer from hyperthyroidism may experience atrial fibrillation, and when the hyperthyroidism is treated, so is the atrial fibrillation. Often, eliminating the underlying cause or avoiding things that cause atrial fibrillation symptoms may be the simplest treatment a patient can utilize.
Dr. Long Cao
OakBend Medical Group
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.