Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)

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What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition causing irregular and rapid heartbeat. It is often referred to as AF and AFib. It develops in the heart's upper chambers, leading to health issues like heart palpitations, dizziness, difficulty breathing, fatigue, chest pain, and confusion.

Your doctor may call this condition arrhythmia, a common term for an abnormal heart rhythm. When the heart stops beating in its normal rhythm, you are more likely to have a heart attack and develop complications, including diabetes and heart valve diseases.

Episodes of atrial fibrillation vary in severity and length. Some come and go quickly, while others last for days and weeks. The treatment strategy is tailored to the specific needs of a patient and the type of AFib they have. Some AFibs can go away on their own, but more severe types require treatment, including medicines, management techniques, lifestyle changes, procedures, and surgeries.

Types of Atrial Fibrillation

Doctors classify atrial fibrillation by how long it lasts and what causesTrusted Source it. Symptoms of different types usually overlap, with the only difference being the underlying reasons that led to the development of this heart disease.

Persistent atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is considered persistent if it lasts more than one week. It usually starts as a short-term AFib. It can be treated with medicines but can also go away on its own. Older age, smoking, and certain health conditions (high blood pressure, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD), heart valve disease, coronary heart disease) increase the risk of persistent atrial fibrillation.

Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation

If an episode of atrial fibrillation is no longer than a week, it is referred to as paroxysmal or short-term AFib. The length of one episode may range from several minutes to a few days. It usually does not require treatment, but visiting a healthcare provider is recommended.

Permanent (chronic) atrial fibrillation

Permanent or chronic, atrial fibrillation does not go away on its own and can't be cured. It needs to be managed with long-term medications that help control the heartbeat and reduce the risk of blood clots.

Long-standing persistent atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation that does not go away after a year is classified as long-standing persistent AFib. This type does not respond well to medicines and electrical cardioversion. Instead, it requires a treatment called ablation. In this procedure, tiny freezes or burns are inflicted upon a heart to create scarring. This affects the heart's electrical system and helps restore its normal heartbeat.

Nonvalvular atrial fibrillation

Nonvalvular atrial fibrillation refers to AFib that developed due to problems unrelated to a heart valve. Its potential causes include high blood pressure, other heart diseases, sleep apnea, overactive thyroid gland, and alcohol abuse.

Valvular atrial fibrillation

Valvular atrial fibrillation is a type of AFib that affects people who have valve disease such as valvular stenosis, mitral valve disease, regurgitation, or an artificial heart valve.

Acute onset atrial fibrillation

Acute onset atrial fibrillation is a short-lived, chaotic episode of AFib. It starts suddenly and goes away within 48 hours. This type is more likely to occur in people who are older, abuse alcohol, and have certain health conditions, including lung disease, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Atrial Fibrillation (AFib): What Is, Causes, Triggers, and Treatment

Causes

Atrial fibrillation is most commonly caused by changes in heart structure triggered by damage to the heart's tissue and electrical systemTrusted Source. These changes usually occur due to the following factors and conditions:

Lifestyle choices and habits may also trigger an atrial fibrillation episode and include the following:

Risk Factors

Many things increase the risk of developing atrial fibrillation. These mainly include the following factors:

Atrial Fibrillation (AFib): What Is, Causes, Triggers, and Treatment

Signs And Symptoms

Atrial fibrillation is asymptomatic for some people (it does not cause any health problems). The severity of symptoms may also range from mild to severe, depending on how fast the ventricles are beating. No symptoms will likely appear if it is a standard or slightly elevated pace. At a faster pace, various health issues start to appear. These usually include:

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Try to remember or note when they occur to make diagnosis easier.

Complications

If you have atrial fibrillation, you are at risk of developing some serious health conditions. These particularly include:

The most dangerous complications of atrial fibrillation are blood clotsTrusted Source, as they may result in a stroke. As you get older, the risk of stroke gets higher, so it is crucial to be aware of stroke first signs, as well as stay in touch with your healthcare provider if you have AFib. Atrial fibrillation patients are usually prescribed blood thinners, a type of drug that lowers the risk of heart attack by preventing blood clots from forming.

Atrial Fibrillation (AFib): What Is, Causes, Triggers, and Treatment

Diagnosis And Tests

To correctly diagnose atrial fibrillation, you will need to inform your doctor about your personal and family medical history, lifestyle habits, previous heart surgeries, diet, physical activity, symptoms you are experiencing, and the health condition you currently have.

After the initial assessment, your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam to check your pulse, blood pressure, heart rhythm, and the health of your lungs. They will also try to determine if you have thyroid problems, signs of heart failure, and an infection, all of which may be potential causes of atrial fibrillation.

In the next step of diagnosis, you will be ordered tests to evaluate your heart's electrical signals, movement, blood flow, muscle contractions, and your potassium and thyroid hormone levels. These tests may include:

Treatment

Treatment for atrial fibrillation aims to control an individual's heart rate, restore correct heart rhythm, manage symptoms, and prevent heart stroke. Depending on the type and severity of atrial fibrillation, doctors recommend medications, therapies, or surgeries, and procedures.

Medications

Medicines are usually the first line of defense against atrial fibrillation. Medicines help control the heart's rhythm, prevent blood clots and strokes, and slow the heart's rate. Your healthcare provider will decide which medicines will work best for your case. These may include:

Cardioversion therapy

Cardioversion therapy is a scheduled procedure performed at a hospital. Your doctor may recommend this method if it is your first atrial fibrillation episode or your symptoms are severe. The procedure aims to reset the heart rhythm, which can be achieved in two ways. The first strategy, electrical cardioversion, is performed by sending electric shocks to the heart using patches or paddles placed on the chest. In the other method, drug cardioversion, the heart's rhythm is reset thanks to medicines received through the vein or mouth.

Surgeries and Procedures

If atrial fibrillation does not respond to medicines, your healthcare provider will recommend surgery. The following procedures are the most common treatment options for more serious cases:

When Should You Seek Emergency?

A heart attack is a possible complication of atrial fibrillation. You should seek emergency immediately if you experience the following symptoms:

How to Prevent Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation may be difficult to prevent if you have a family history of heart conditions or medical conditions that make you likely to develop AFib. However, you can still follow specific guidelines and introduce changes to your lifestyle to significantly reduce the risk of atrial fibrillationTrusted Source, blood clots, heart stroke, and various heart diseases. Consider the following tips to lower your risk:

Atrial Fibrillation – Key Facts You Should Know

Known as AF or AFib, atrial fibrillation is a heart condition characterized by irregular and rapid heartbeats, which can lead to symptoms such as palpitations, dizziness, difficulty breathing, fatigue, chest pain, and confusion.

AFib is categorized into types based on duration and causes, including persistent, paroxysmal, permanent, long-standing persistent, nonvalvular, valvular, and acute onset.

Causes and triggers of AFib encompass structural heart changes due to factors like heart valve disease, viral infections, heart surgeries, and heart attacks. Certain lifestyle habits, stress, substance abuse, and other health conditions also contribute.

Treatment aims to control heart rate, restore normal rhythm, manage symptoms, and prevent complications. Medications like beta-blockers, blood thinners, calcium channel blockers, and rhythm control drugs are commonly prescribed. Cardioversion therapy and surgical procedures like ablation and maze procedures are recommended for more severe cases.

Sources

December 7, 2023
10 minutes read
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