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What is atrial fibrillation and how is it treated?

April 12, 2014

Did you know that atrial fibrillation is one of the most common heart conditions? Called a-fib for short, atrial fibrillation is associated with the rhythm of the human heartbeat. In a normal, healthy heart, all four chambers of the heart muscle pump at the same time in the proper sequence to ensure adequate blood flow to the rest of the body. When atrial fibrillation occurs, the heartbeat becomes irregular.

What is atrial fibrillation?

An arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat, can indicate various problems with the heart muscle. Of these, atrial fibrillation is the most prevalent. With this condition, the upper chambers of the heart, called the atria, beat irregularly and often too fast. Since the chambers of the heart beat in response to electrical signals they receive, atrial fibrillation happens when those signals are too rapid or chaotic. When this occurs, blood is not pumped completely from the atria into the two lower chambers of the heart, called the ventricles. This causes the walls of atria to fibrillate – or quiver in a rapid, irregular fashion. Therefore, leftover blood pools in the atria, which can cause a variety of health problems, including the potential for blood clots and stroke.

What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

Symptoms of the disorder can include heart palpitations, shortness of breath and weakness. But for some people, atrial fibrillation does not present any noticeable symptoms. However, even for people who live with the condition without knowing they have it, atrial fibrillation can increase the risk of stroke. Patients who are symptomatic may ultimately experience chest pain or even life-threatening heart failure.

In some people, atrial fibrillation happens rarely. But in those for whom it becomes a frequent and long-term problem, treatment is usually necessary.

How is atrial fibrillation treated?

Medication or lifestyle changes can correct the problem in many patients with mild or infrequent cases of atrial fibrillation. Some drugs can restore the heartbeat to a normal rhythm. For other patients, anticoagulants, such as warfarin, are used. However, this medication can lead to excessive bleeding, especially in elderly patients.

There are several nonsurgical treatment options, including what is called “electrical cardioversion.” This involves the application of low-voltage electric currents that are applied to the chest wall through metal paddles or patches.

For some patients, a surgical option may be considered. With surgical treatment, normal heart rhythm can be restored when misfired electrical impulses are shunted off to another part of the body where they will not interfere with the heartbeat’s proper rhythm.

If you have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, it is important to talk with your cardiologist about the right treatment option for you and your lifestyle. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above, schedule an appointment with one of our experienced cardiologists today.