It refers to a blood clot that forms in the atrium.
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a common abnormal heart rhythm that occurs when electrical impulses are triggered from different places in the atria (the upper chambers of the heart) in a disorganized manner.
This causes the atria to constrict, and feels like an irregular heartbeat or pulse. It is a major cause of stroke.
The pumping action of your heart is controlled by small electrical messages produced by a part of the heart called the sinus node. The sinus node is sometimes called the “natural pacemaker” of your heart.
Normally, electrical messages are sent regularly, and each message tells the heart to contract and pump blood around your body. This feels like a normal heartbeat or pulse.
Atrial fibrillation occurs because, in addition to the sinus node that sends regular electrical impulses, different places in and around the atria (the upper chambers of the heart) also produce electrical messages, in an uncoordinated way.
These multiple and irregular messages cause the atria to tremble or shake, which is known as fibrillation. This feels like an irregular or sometimes rapid heartbeat.
Types of atrial fibrillation
Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation:
It’s when your heart goes in and out of the normal rhythm for less than a week. You may feel that this happens for a few minutes or for several days. You may not need treatment with this type of atrial fibrillation, but you should see a doctor.
You may hear this type of atrial fibrillation nicknamed “vacation heart syndrome.” Doctors call it that way when it happens to otherwise healthy people, who may be celebrating with a night out or having some extra drinks.
If the heart is not used to all this different activity, it can go into atrial fibrillation. It also happens sometimes when you are under extreme stress.
Persistent atrial fibrillation:
Generally it lasts longer. Doctors can use medications to treat this type of atrial fibrillation. If that does not work, they could use a low-voltage current to restore the rhythm of their heart to normal.
It is called electrical cardioversion and doctors usually perform this procedure in a hospital while they are sedated, so they will not feel anything. You can go home once you are finished, but someone else will have to take you.
It basically means that your atrial fibrillation has lasted more than a year and does not go away. Medications and treatment such as electrical cardioversion may not stop atrial fibrillation.
Doctors can use another type of treatment, such as ablation (which burns certain areas of your heart’s electrical system) to restore normal heart rhythm.
Permanent (chronic) atrial fibrillation:
It can not be corrected with treatments. If you have this type, you and your doctor will decide whether or not you need long-term medication to control your heart rate and reduce your risk of stroke.
Valvular atrial fibrillation:
It means that your atrial fibrillation is caused by a problem in the heart valve. Some of these may include an artificial heart valve, valvular stenosis (which means that one of the valves in your heart has hardened).
Also regurgitation (which means you have a heart valve that is not closing the property and lets the blood flow the wrong way) more than a week. It may stop on its own, but you may need medication or treatment to stop it.
Non-valvular atrial fibrillation is atrial fibrillation that is not caused by a problem with a heart valve.
Non-valvular atrial fibrillation:
It is an atrial fibrillation that is not caused by a problem with a heart valve.
The main reason why it matters if your atrial fibrillation is “valvular” or “non-valvular” is because it affects what type of medication your doctor will prescribe to help reduce your risk of stroke.
There are many options for treating atrial fibrillation, no matter what type you have. If you have symptoms, consult your doctor to discuss what is best for you.
Symptoms may include:
- Palpitations (being aware of your heart rate).
- Difficulty breathing.
- Dizziness or feeling faint.
- Irregular pulse.
However, some people only have mild symptoms, while other people do not have any symptoms.
How long does it last?
The type of atrial fibrillation you have will affect the duration of your symptoms:
- Paroxysmal fibrillation lasts 7 days or less.
- Persistent atrial fibrillation lasts more than 7 days.
- Permanent atrial fibrillation does not disappear.
If your atrial fibrillation continues for many months or years, you may reach the point where you just notice the symptoms. Sometimes, they do not disappear on their own.
Your doctor may have to treat you so that your heart returns to the correct rhythm.
How can I check if I have atrial fibrillation?
When you put your hand on your chest, you should feel the rhythm of familiar lub-dub of your heart. If your heart is accelerating instead of beating and the sensation lasts a few minutes, that is a sign that you may have a condition called atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation can be detected by feeling the pulse in your wrist. If you are in atrial fibrillation, your pulse will feel irregular and the heartbeat may vary in intensity.
When you have this condition, faulty electrical signals make your heart beat or accelerate too fast. This abnormal rhythm prevents your heart from pumping as well as it should. Your blood flow may decrease enough to accumulate and form clots.
Not all those with atrial fibrillation have accelerated or accelerated heartbeats. Some factors can affect if you have symptoms and how severe they are. They include:
- Age, older people often have no symptoms.
- The cause of your atrial fibrillation.
- How much your heart’s ability to pump affects.
When should I call a doctor?
Call your doctor if your heart does not return to a normal rhythm in a few minutes or if your symptoms worsen. Call your doctor immediately if you have these symptoms, which could be signs of a heart attack or stroke:
- Pain or pressure in the middle of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes.
- Pain that extends to the jaw, neck, arms, back, or stomach.
- Cold sweat.
- Face fall.
- Weakness of the arm
- Problems to talk.
Your doctor will perform tests to check your heartbeat and electrical impulses in your heart. These and other tests can show if you have AF.
If you have an irregular heartbeat, you can receive treatments to return it at a normal rate.
Sometimes your primary care doctor will diagnose atrial fibrillation. But in many cases, it is diagnosed by a cardiologist.
Cardiologists who specialize in irregular heartbeats are called electrophysiologists. First, the doctor will ask you detailed questions about your symptoms, health habits, and health problems that you or another member of your family has had.
During the physical examination, the doctor is likely to:
- Listen to the frequency and rhythm of your heartbeat.
- Take the pulse and blood pressure.
- Listen to your lungs.
- Check for signs of heart or valvular problems.
This simple and painless test is the most useful. Record the electrical activity of your heart. It can show the following:
- The speed of your heartbeat.
- Rhythm of the beat of your heart.
- Strength and synchronization of electrical signals that pass through your heart.
A doctor or technician places small patches, called electrodes, on different areas of your body, including several on your chest.
These capture signals that cause the wave patterns in the EKG results. It gives your doctor an image of your heart’s general electrical activity. But because the test is a quick snapshot, a standard EKG will not always capture atrial fibrillation.
Sometimes you will need a portable electrocardiograph machine to monitor your heart for longer.
Keep this with you for 24 to 48 hours while continuously recording your heart’s electrical activity. The additional time provides a better chance of detecting an abnormal heart rhythm, what doctors call arrhythmia.
As with a regular EKG, you will have small electrodes attached to your chest. The cables connect these electrodes to a small recorder that you can attach to a belt, store in a pocket or hang from the neck.
Then you only do what you always do. Your doctor will check the results recorded later.
This works like a Holter monitor, but only records the activity of your heart at certain times. You can start recording automatically when it detects that something is off. Or you may have to press a button when you feel any of these symptoms:
- Giddiness .
- Accelerated or agitated heart.
You may need to use it for a couple of months, as long as it is necessary to detect and record the problem.
It is exactly what it seems, a test that exerts additional stress on your heart to see how it responds to hard work and rapid heartbeat. You will be connected to an EKG during the test, and the technician will also observe your heart rate and blood pressure.
Exercise is an easy way to pump your heart. You can ride a stationary bike or walk or run on a treadmill. That is why this is sometimes called a treadmill test.
If your body can not handle intense activity, you can take a special medication that makes your heart work harder instead.
This test uses sound waves and a computer to create a moving image of your heart. An “echo” gives your doctor information about:
- The size and shape of your heart
- How well the valves and chambers of the heart work.
- Where the heart muscle does not contract in the right way.
- Areas of poor blood flow.
- Previous injuries poor blood flow has caused.
The same device makes the sound waves and picks them up bouncing. When your doctor places it on your chest, this procedure is called a transthoracic echocardiogram (TTE).
To get closer to your heart, in this way it is easier to make clear pictures and see blood clots, you can feed the device through your mouth and throat while you are sedated and you will not feel it. This is called a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE).
This test does not diagnose atrial fibrillation, but it can show complications, including fluid accumulation and an enlarged heart.
They can tell your doctor what might be causing your atrial fibrillation. Blood tests can detect infections, thyroid and kidney problems, signs of a heart attack, and more.
The causes include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart valve disease.
- Excess of alcohol consumption.
It is also associated with coronary disease. But in many patients an underlying cause can not be found. Sometimes, atrial fibrillation can resolve once the underlying condition has resolved.
Some people with AF need medications to help control the frequency and rhythm of their heart. These medications are most frequently beta-blockers and antiarrhythmic medications. Occasionally, a procedure such as ablation or cardioversion may be necessary.
Atrial fibrillation can increase the risk of a blood clot forming inside the heart. If the clot travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke. AF increases the risk of stroke between four and five times.
However, with proper treatment, the risk of stroke can be substantially reduced.
Anticoagulant medications such as warfarin and a new class of medications called NOAC are the most effective treatments to reduce the risk of stroke in people with atrial fibrillation.
Although AF can greatly increase the risk of stroke, there are other factors that can contribute to a stroke.
These include smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure , physical inactivity, overweight and diabetes.
The good news is that some of these factors are modifiable, which means you can do something about it to reduce your chances of having a stroke, whether or not you have atrial fibrillation.
Life with atrial fibrillation has its challenges, for sure. But with the right treatment and some changes in lifestyle, you can stay active and energetic.
Symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat can make it difficult to travel and perform daily activities. You may have to adjust your routine because of your symptoms or the medicine you take to treat them.
Here are some simple changes you can make and good habits you can practice to protect your heart and help you feel your best:
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy is always a good idea.
Here are some other diet tips for people who have atrial fibrillation:
- Go to a diet low in fat and low in salt.
- Avoid saturated fats, trans fats and salt to help control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This will also protect your blood vessels.
Measure how much soda, coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate you eat. These can make your heart accelerate.
Reduce alcohol consumption:
Large amounts can trigger attacks of atrial fibrillation. A drink or two could be safe with the approval of your doctor. If you take anticoagulants, alcohol can make you bleed too much.
Regulate the amounts of vitamin K you consume:
People who take anticoagulants to control AF should be careful to eat foods rich in vitamin K such as broccoli, spinach or lettuce.
Your body uses vitamin K to help your blood clot. Eating too much or too little of this vitamin can affect the effectiveness of your medication.
Be more active:
You can still exercise when you have atrial fibrillation. Staying active will help you control your weight, improve your sleep and strengthen your heart.
Consult your doctor before starting any new fitness program to make sure the activity is safe for you.
Try to continue with light to moderate exercises. Walk, swim or bike. Avoid very intense exercises that involve running or jumping.
Ask your doctor how to manage your atrial fibrillation during exercise. If your heart loses the rhythm during a workout, stop and rest.
Control your weight:
You have a greater chance of atrial fibrillation when it is too heavy.
Being overweight makes your atrial fibrillation more likely to return after a procedure such as ablation. To control your condition, try to lose at least 10% of your body weight with diet and exercise if your doctor or dietitian has told you that you are obese.
Nicotine in cigarettes can make this condition worse. Smoking also damages blood vessels and increases the chances of heart disease and a heart attack .
Stress can trigger episodes. When you feel anxious, try relaxation techniques like these:
- Deep breathing.
If your stress feels overwhelming, consult a therapist or find a support group to get help.
Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. About half of people with atrial fibrillation do not sleep well because their breathing stops again and again during the night, a condition called sleep apnea .
If you snore or feel that you never rest well at night, consult your doctor to obtain a diagnosis.
Follow your treatment plan:
Your doctor will prescribe medications or other treatments to control your heart rhythm and prevent blood clots. Take your medication as prescribed. Do not change the dose or stop taking it without first talking to your doctor.
Medications and supplements:
Some medications, such as cough and cold medications, have stimulants that can make your heart beat faster. Other medications and supplements you take may interact poorly with your atrial fibrillation medications.
Tell your doctor and pharmacist before taking any new medicines, including those you buy at the pharmacy without a prescription.