What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common type of arrhythmia in the United States, affecting more than two-and-a-half million Americans. The condition occurs when the electrical signals in the heart fail to function properly, causing the AV node in the heart (which governs the heart’s ventricles) to be overwhelmed with electrical impulses. When this happens, the AV node is unable to keep up and the heart’s atria and ventricles contract out of sync, causing an irregular, fast heart rate. In patients with atrial fibrillation, the heart may beat twice as fast as a normal, healthy heart rate.
What risks are associated with atrial fibrillation?
In patients with atrial fibrillation, the atria (heart’s upper chambers) do not fully contract. As a result, the atria are never fully emptied of blood, which can lead to the development of blood clots in the atria. These blood clots can be quite dangerous. In fact, some research has indicated that AF-caused blood clots are responsible for as many as one out of five ischemic strokes. Increased risk for stroke is perhaps one of the most common problems associated with atrial fibrillation. AF can also cause chest pain and heart failure.
Who is at risk for developing atrial fibrillation?
Risk for developing AF increases with age. For men, the median age for developing AF is 66.8 years; for women, 74.6 years. Other risk factors for atrial fibrillation include:
- Heart Failure
- Coronary heart disease
- Rheumatic heart disease
- Congenital heart defects
- Pericarditis and other inflammatory conditions
- Heart attack and having had heart surgery
Other risk factors not strictly related to heart and vascular function include:
- Lung disease
- Use of alcohol and/or caffeine
- Excessive psychological stress
What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?
Common symptoms of AF include:
- Heart palpitations (heart beat that flutters, skips, or pounds)
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Fatigue and weakness
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting
- Difficulty exercising
Severe complications include stroke and heart failure.
It is important to note that some people with atrial fibrillation experience no signs or symptoms at all. Thorough evaluation and screening by a physician should detect atrial fibrillation, whether or not a patient experiences any symptoms. Learn more below.
How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with atrial fibrillation, you should schedule an appointment with your physician as soon as possible, as the potential complications (stroke and heart failure) are severe. Your primary care provider may be able to diagnose atrial fibrillation by evaluating your symptoms, your personal medical history, and your family history.
An electrocardiogram (EKG/ECG) is one of the most common tools used to detect atrial fibrillation. During an EKG, the health practitioner places electrodes on the chest. These electrodes record the heart’s electrical activity, providing insight into heart rate, rhythm, and the strength of the heart’s electrical signals.
Some patients may be given a Holter monitor or extended day monitor. These monitors are portable EKG devices, worn by the patient for a few hours or a few days. Your physician may ask you to keep an account of your activities as you go about your day. The physician can then evaluate the information recorded by the monitor, while comparing it with your record of physical activity, to look for signs of heart arrhythmia.
How is atrial fibrillation treated?
Atrial fibrillation therapies can vary widely, depending on the underlying cause(s). At Phoenix Heart Center, cardiologists consider each patient’s unique symptoms, lifestyle, and needs in devising a treatment plan. Therapies are custom tailored so that each patient has an opportunity for the best possible outcome. In treating atrial fibrillation, Phoenix Heart Center cardiologists have at least four goals:
- Prevent blood clot formation and reduce risk of stroke. This can oftentimes be accomplished through the use of blood thinners such as aspirin, warfarin, dabigatran, and heparin.
- Next, the cardiologist attempts to control how often the patient’s ventricles contract. While AF is still present, regulating ventricle contraction allows the ventricles to completely fill with blood. Beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and digitalis are types of medication that may be used to establish a controlled heart rate.
- Once heart rate control is addressed, the cardiologist may attempt to restore a normal heart rhythm. This may be accomplished through medication, electrical cardioversion, catheter ablation, pacemaker implantation, or other heart procedures. Rhythm control is typically prescribed for patients whose AF is relatively new.
- Lastly, it is important for the cardiologist to treat underlying and related health conditions that may be causing atrial fibrillation (e.g. obesity, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, coronary heart disease, etc.).
Schedule An Appointment With a Cardiologist in Phoenix
Has a doctor told you that you may have atrial fibrillation? Are you worried about an irregular or fast heart beat? Schedule an appointment with a cardiologist in Phoenix, Mesa, or Tempe, AZ online or by calling a Phoenix Heart Center office near you.