Atrial fibrillation
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Atrial fibrillation is a condition of the heart in which the atria, or the heart’s two upper chambers, beat irregularly. This puts them out of synchronization with the lower two chambers, the ventricles. The result is a chaotic and rapid heart rate, which causes the flow of blood to the body to be limited. This irregular heartbeat produces symptoms of heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, and weakness in the body. This puts the patient at a higher risk of developing blood clots, which can lead to strokes. More than two million people in the United States suffer from atrial fibrillation.


Atrial fibrillation can be caused by heart disease or high blood pressure, which result in the changes in your heart that make the heartbeat irregular. If you are experiencing atrial fibrillation, your heart just doesn’t beat efficiently. When it can’t pump enough blood to your body, your blood pressure drops. Some people have no symptoms of fibrillation at all, and don’t know that their heart is doing anything irregular until the doctor tells them during a routine checkup. Some people, however, experience palpitations, which is a racing or flopping sensation. They may also experience dizziness or lightheadedness, weakness, confusion, difficulty breathing, or chest pain.


There are two kinds of atrial fibrillation: sporadic and chronic. Sproadic fibrillation means that incidents of fibrillation are episodic, they come and go. Symptoms last a few minutes to a few hours and then stop on their own. Chronic atrial fibrillation, on the other hand, means that symptoms continue consistently most of the time, and can continue unabated until the condition is treated.

There are many reasons why a person might experience atrial fibrillation. It could be the result of long-term high blood pressure, which damages the heart and keeps it from pumping effectively. It could be the result of the damage left by previous heart attacks. Some people also have congenitally abnormal heart valves or other defects which cause inefficient pumping of the blood. If you have had heart surgery in the past, the scarring might lead to problems in the heartbeat, as well. A condition called sick sinus syndrome can cause the heart’s mechanism of regulating electrical impulses to malfunction, overloading the atria with electrical impulses.

Some causes of atrial fibrillation have nothing to do with the heart. For example, if you have an overactive thyroid or another type of hormonal imbalance, that could cause your heart to race. Some medications or drugs also cause the heart rate to speed up dramatically, as can viral infections, sleep apnea, or stress.


Some people are at more risk for atrial fibrillation than others. Older people are at higher risk than younger ones, with the risk increasing as you age. Anyone with a history of heart disease might experience fibrillation, as can anyone with other chronic problems, including thyroid, high blood pressure and sleep apnea. Atrial fibrillation runs in some families, so make sure to let your doctor know if it runs in yours. Finally, excessive use of alcohol can trigger atrial fibrillation, so always drink in moderation or not at all.
atrial fibrillation
Image: Atrial Fibrillation


If you suspect that you have been experiencing atrial fibrillation, your doctor will want to run some tests. One of these is an electrocardiogram (ECG) which measures the electrical impulses in your heart. Another test might be the Holter monitor. This is a portable machine that records all of your heartbeats, and which you wear for a few days. This enables your doctor to get an idea of what is going on inside your heart over a longer period. There’s also an echocardiogram, which is like a sonogram of your heart, which will help the doctor get a picture of your heart. And finally, your doctor will take blood tests which will help him or her rule out other problems such as the thyroid.

Atrial fibrillation is not harmful by itself. The problem is when it is a sign of something more dangerous going on inside you. For example, the irregular rhythm of your heart could cause the pooling of blood, and that can lead to clots. Clots can travel through your blood vessels into your brain, blocking the flow of blood, and cause a stroke. People who have atrial fibrillation have a much higher risk of stroke than people who do not, and that risk increases even more as you age. If you experience atrial fibrillation, your doctor might put you on blood thinners in order to help prevent clots from forming. Atrial fibrillation might also weaken the heart, and that could keep it from circulating enough blood for your body. This is called heart failure, and can be fatal.


Blood thinners are one treatment for atrial fibrillation, though they do not address the symptoms themselves. Blood thinners are prescribed chiefly in an attempt to prevent a stroke from happening where atrial fibrillation is present. Other treatments are for the condition itself aim to do one of two things; either reset the heart rhythm back to normal, or to simply control the rhythm so that the heart doesn’t beat too far out of control. Other possibilities include surgery or catheterization of the heart.

Resetting the rhythm of your heart is called cardioversion, and can be done in one of two ways. First is through medication, which attempt to chemically reset your rhythm. This treatment is usually done in a hospital so that your heart rate and response can be monitored. Another treatment is electrical cardioversion, and in this procedure, an electrical shock is given to your heart with paddles or patches on your chest. This procedure stops the electrical activity in your heart for a brief moment, and when it restarts, it is hoped that it will have the right rhythm. This treatment is given under anesthesia in the hospital.


Once your heart’s normal rhythm is restored, your doctor will often prescribe medications that will help prevent future episodes of atrial fibrillation. These are called anti-arrhythmics, and help maintain a sinus, or normal, rhythm. Unfortunately, even with these medications and treatments, atrial fibrillation, and the risks that accompany it, often come back. You doctor will want to monitor you on an ongoing basis to make sure your heart stays healthy.
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