Atrial fibrillation, also called AFib or AF, is a common kind of irregular heartbeat that often rapid heart rate that commonly causes poor blood flow. It is quite common in the United States with more the 200,000 cases reported every year. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib.
There are two main types of atrial fibrillation: valvular and non-valvular.
Valvular AFib refers to atrial fibrillation that is caused by a heart valve problem. Examples of a heart valve problem include a narrow or leaking valve, or a valve repair or replacement.
Non-valvular AFib (sometimes called NVAF) refers to atrial fibrillation that is not caused by a heart valve problem. Non-valvular atrial fibrillation is the most common type of AFib.
While treatment options may be different for non-valvular and valvular atrial fibrillation, the effects of the disease are often the same. To better understand these effects, it’s helpful to know a little about how your heart works.
How Does Atrial Fibrillation Affect the Heart?
Your heart is divided into four chambers. The two small upper chambers are called the right and left atria. The two larger lower chambers are called the right and left ventricles. With each beat of your heart, blood is pumped to and from the other parts of your body.
The pumping is controlled by your heart’s electrical system. Normally, the electrical signal that tells your heart to beat comes from the sinoatrial node, or SA node, in the right atrium. It keeps your heart beating in a regular rhythm: a rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute, in the average adult at rest.
But during atrial fibrillation, electrical signals come from several areas in the atria. These disorganized signals cause the atria to quiver rapidly and irregularly. AFib keeps the atria and ventricles from working together properly.
Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation: Electrocardiogram (ECG)
If you have symptoms of atrial fibrillation, your doctor may order an electrocardiogram (ECG, sometimes called an EKG). An electrocardiogram records the electrical activity of your heart through sensors placed against the skin.
A reliable way to diagnose AFib is to record an electrocardiogram during an episode of atrial fibrillation. But AFib episodes can be unpredictable, so an ECG recorded at your doctor’s office may appear to be normal.
If this happens, your doctor may ask you to wear a portable ECG monitor to record your heart’s electrical signals over a period of time. Your doctor will then analyze the monitor recordings to determine if you have atrial fibrillation.
Health Risks of Atrial Fibrillation
People with untreated atrial fibrillation may be at greater risk for stroke than people with normal heart rhythms. Because blood does not flow through the atria regularly, blood clots may form in the heart. If a blood clot escapes from the heart, it can travel through the bloodstream to the brain and cause a stroke.
Untreated AFib may lead to other problems besides stroke. Talk to your doctor about the different risks that AFib may pose to your health.
Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms
People with AFib may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
• Heart palpitations (a sudden pounding, fluttering, or racing feeling in the chest)
• Lack of energy, feeling tired
• Dizziness, or a feeling of faintness or light-headedness
• Chest discomfort (pain, pressure, or tightness in the chest)
• Shortness of breath
Atrial Fibrillation Treatment
There are a number of different treatment options for atrial fibrillation. Your doctor will help you choose an AFib treatment plan based on your heart’s rhythm, your symptoms, and any other medical conditions you may have. The goals of treatment for atrial fibrillation may include restoring a normal heart rhythm, controlling your heart rate, and/or reducing your stroke risk.
To reduce your risk of stroke, your doctor may prescribe blood-thinning medications that can reduce the formation of blood clots. However, there are reasons that some people do not take blood thinners long term. For these people, the WATCHMAN Implant may be an option.
Every person with atrial fibrillation has different needs. If you’ve been diagnosed with AFib, talk to your doctor about the AFib treatment options available to you. Your doctor will help you understand the risks and benefits associated with each option. Together you can choose the treatment that is right for you.