Atrial fibrillation, often referred to as “AFib,” is a common heart condition. The condition on its own is not usually life-threatening, but if left untreated the side-effects could be life threatening. AFib is characterized by an irregular and often rapid heart rate that can increase your risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related health complications. When the heart is unable to pump blood effectively throughout the body, there is an increased likelihood for clotting. If a clot is pumped out of the heart, it could travel to the brain and lead to a stroke. About 15 out of every 100 strokes are caused by this.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2.7 and 6.1 million people in the US have AFib. That number is expected to rise as the population continues to age. Many people living with AFib have no symptoms, and so they are unaware of their condition until they are suffering from dangerous complications. These complications may require emergency treatment. Understanding more about AFib can help you to identify the condition before it becomes an emergency.
Types of Atrial Fibrillation
There are a few different types of AFib, and the type that you have may change over time.
Paroxysmal AFib. Paroxysmal AFib is when the heart goes in and out of normal rhythm for less than a week. It may happen for just a few minutes or could last several days. It is sometimes brought on by stress. You may not need treatment with this type of AFib, but you should definitely see a doctor.
Some people call this type of AFib “holiday heart syndrome” because it can happen to otherwise healthy people who are celebrating excessively on a late night out. If the heart isn’t used to the increased alcohol intake and activity, it can go into AFib.
Persistent AFib. Persistent AFib typically lasts longer than a week. It could stop on its own, but it’s possible you could need medicine or treatment to completely address the problem. If medications don’t suffice, your doctor may suggest using low-voltage current to reset the heart’s rhythm back to normal. This process, called electrical cardioversion, happens in a hospital setting while the patient is sedated.
Long Standing Persistent AFib. Your AFib can be classified as long standing persistent AFib if it has gone on for a year of longer. When medications and electrical cardioversion are not enough, your doctor may suggest ablation. Ablation is used to burn certain parts of the heart’s electrical system to help restore normal rhythm.
Chronic AFib. This type of AFib cannot be reversed with treatments. You and your doctor will need to decide which long-term medications are best to help control your heart rate and lower your risk for stroke.
Risk Factors for Atrial Fibrillation
While anyone can have AFib, the condition is much more common among adults older than 60 – about 2% of people younger than 65 have AFib, while about 9% of people older have the condition. Beyond age, other risk factors for AFib include:
- History of heart attacks
- Thyroid disease
- Chronic lung disease
- Coronary artery disease
- Excessive alcohol or stimulant use
- Sleep apnea
Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation
AFib does not only occur among people with other health conditions. Healthy people can develop AFib. In many cases, people with atrial fibrillation don’t experience any symptoms, so it’s not uncommon for AFib to be discovered as the cause after a first stroke for older adults. To avoid this, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of the condition. These can include:
- Heart palpitations (feeling that your heart is racing or fluttering)
- Being aware that your heart is beating. Ordinarily, people don’t notice this
- Chest pain, pressure, or discomfort
- Pain in the abdomen
- Feeling short of breath
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Not being able to exercise
It’s important to speak with your doctor about these symptoms to determine whether or not atrial fibrillation is to blame. The sooner you receive a diagnosis, the more likely to it is that you will be able to live a comfortable life.
Treatment Options for Atrial Fibrillation
Your doctor may recommend certain medications to treat your AFib, but ultimately the appropriate course of treatment will depends on age, your symptoms and how often they occur, how long you have been in AFib, whether or not you’ve had a stroke, and any other co-occurring health problems.
Medications and treatment that can be appropriate for treating AFib include:
- Blood thinners to help to lower the risk for clots
- Beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers to help to slow down the heart beat
- Electric cardioversion to reset an irregular heart rhythm
- Antiarrhythmics to help keep the heartbeat regular
- A pacemaker to help keep the heart going when it is beating too slowly
- Heart surgery, which is reserved for only the most severe cases