Atrial Fibrillation

Singers croon about their hearts being all “aflutter.” And if your heart is beating fast or feels like it’s skipping a beat, it could be a little thing called love. But your fluttering heart could also be the result of a serious heart problem: atrial fibrillation.

Click on the image to watch an animated explanation of what happens during atrial fibrillation. Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Atrial fibrillation can make you feel like your heart is flip-flopping, beating fast or skipping beats. Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of heart arrhythmia. An arrhythmia is when the heart beats too slowly, too fast or with an irregular rhythm.

Millions of Americans have atrial fibrillation. Each year, more than 750,000 are hospitalized from it, and it contributes to an estimated 130,000 deaths. It costs the United States about $6 billion annually. And medical costs for people who have atrial fibrillation are about $8,700 higher per year than for those who don’t have it.

Symptoms

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include feeling extra heartbeats, skipped heartbeats or a racing heartbeat. But these symptoms are not always caused by atrial fibrillation. And some people who have atrial fibrillation may not feel symptoms at all.

Atrial fibrillation may happen in brief, occasional episodes, or it may become an ongoing or long-term heart problem.

In some people, the condition can cause chest pain or heart failure, especially if the heart rhythm is very fast.

Causes

In a healthy heart, electrical signals travel through the heart and make it beat regularly. But with atrial fibrillation, these signals can’t do their job as well, so the heart does not beat normally.

The damage to the heart that causes atrial fibrillation usually happens because of other health conditions. For example, high blood pressure can damage the heart and upset the electrical signals.

The risk for atrial fibrillation increases with age. There are several other factors that increase the risk for atrial fibrillation, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Certain types of heart disease
  • Structural heart defects
  • Heart failure
  • Heavy alcohol use

Increased Risk for Stroke

Sometimes even a healthy person can have a stroke, seemingly out of nowhere. Atrial fibrillation can be the reason. People with atrial fibrillation have four to five times higher risk of having a stroke than people without it.

And strokes caused by complications from atrial fibrillation tend to be more severe than strokes with other underlying causes.

Atrial fibrillation causes the heart to beat abnormally, and when the heart doesn’t beat normally, blood stays inside the heart’s chambers too long. This can cause a blood clot to form. Then it can travel to an artery in the brain and get stuck there, causing a stroke.

You can reduce your stroke risk by managing your cholesterol, which will help keep your arteries healthy. A buildup of fatty plaque inside arteries, called atherosclerosis, narrows the arteries, making it easier for a clot to block blood flow.

Prevention

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends these healthy lifestyle choices to help prevent atrial fibrillation:

  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Limit saturated and trans fat and cholesterol. Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol.

All these steps promote healthy blood pressure — and that’s important. High blood pressure is the biggest risk factor for atrial fibrillation.

A study in the journal Circulation found that more than half of atrial fibrillation cases could be prevented by reducing preventable behavioral and dietary risk factors like smoking, being sedentary, or consuming too much salt or too many calories.

Treatment

Many doctors use a two-step approach to treating atrial fibrillation. First, find and fix changeable risk factors with lifestyle changes and medicine. Second, prevent blood clots from forming by treating patients with blood-thinning medicines.

If you’re being treated for atrial fibrillation, be sure to take all medicines as prescribed. And let your doctor know if you have any heart symptoms or concerns about your medicines. If you take a blood thinner, you may need to have your blood checked regularly.