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Last Updated: June 06, 2018

Atrial Fibrillation

Overview

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a fast, irregular heart rhythm in which the two upper chambers of the heart (the atria) quiver rapidly (fibrillate) instead of pumping at a normal steady pace.

Types of AF

  1. Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. Paroxysmal AF is an intermittent form of AF that comes and goes on its own.
  2. Persistent atrial fibrillation. Persistent AF is a longer lasting type of AF, which can be corrected with treatment.
  3. Permanent atrial fibrillation. Permanent AF does not go away and cannot be stopped with treatment.

Heart functions

The heart’s natural pacemaker, the sinoatrial node (SA node), is a collection of tiny cells that send electrical signals to produce heartbeats. Normally, the SA node generates electrical signals that trigger well-timed, organized contractions of the upper chambers (atria) and the lower chambers (ventricles). However, in AF, the electrical signals are fast and chaotic. The atria quiver rapidly and irregularly, so blood pools in the atria instead of being pumped properly to the ventricles. In some patients with AF, the ventricles also pump poorly in a condition known as heart failure.

Causes

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Atrial fibrillation

Underlying heart disease is by far the most common cause of AF. Numerous conditions leading to AF include the following:

Symptoms

During atrial fibrillation, some people do not experience any symptoms at all. Other individuals are affected by symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms include:

Complications

Diagnosis

Usually a physical exam will reveal irregular heart sounds and an abnormal pulse rate. When atrial fibrillation is suspected, further testing is required to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

Some people with AF spontaneously convert back to a normal rhythm without treatment. In other cases, some form of treatment is required. The specific treatment depends on how long an individual has been in AF and the severity of symptoms.

The primary goals of AF treatment include the following:

  1. Restore a normal heart rhythm
  2. Slow the heart rate while a patient remains in AF
  3. Prevent blood clot formation and decrease the risk for stroke
  4. Decrease the risk for heart failure.

Medications

Other Treatments

Prevention

AF is often a consequence of underlying heart problems; therefore, measures that prevent heart disease also reduce the risk of AF. Lifestyle factors like a healthy diet, regular exercise, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol abuse are recommended.

Sources

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Carla Hightower, MD

Dr. Hightower is an experienced physician who studied medicine at Northwestern University, where she also earned an MBA. As the founder of Living Health Works, she offers health coaching to individuals, private groups and corporations.