What is it?
Atrial fibrillation is a heart rhythm irregularity that causes the heart to beat fast or irregularly. It affects around 4% of people over the age of 65. The atria, the upper chambers of the heart that control the rhythm, don’t function as they should and cause the heart rate to speed up, often much higher than the usual regular heart rate of between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Atrial fibrillation can be divided into three categories:
- Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation: a very high frequency fibrillation, which can be transient and not related to any other conditions. It normally doesn't last more than 48 hours, although in some cases it can last up to one week. It does not usually require extensive medical treatment;
- Persistent atrial fibrillation: a lower frequency fibrillation which requires medical treatment;
- Permanent atrial fibrillation: it is often caused by an underlying condition. The treatment will consist in addressing that condition first.
What are the symptoms?
Atrial fibrillation can affect people occasionally, experiencing symptoms for a few minutes, before they cease, or they can be persistent where the symptoms don’t stop until there is medical intervention.
The most common symptoms experienced are:
- Heart racing or beating irregularly, known as palpitations
- Feeling weak or lightheaded
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in the chest
Atrial fibrillation carries some risks for the sufferer. Due to the irregularity of the heartbeat, blood can pool and clot within the heart. If the clot breaks away, it can travel around the blood system and cause blockages within the smaller blood vessels. This can lead to stroke in some cases, with atrial fibrillation being one of the main causes of strokes.
Atrial fibrillation can also lead to heart failure, as the heart’s muscles may become weakened, especially if the condition is long-standing.
How is it diagnosed?
Atrial fibrillation can be diagnosed with a heart exam. The main tests to diagnose atrial fibrillation are:
What causes it?
Atrial fibrillation is mainly caused by cardiac disorders, such as:
- rheumatic heart disease
- cardiac valve disorders
- myiocardial infarction
- coronary heart disease
Moreover, the following conditions can also lead to atrial fibrillation:
- type 2 diabetes
- respiratory diseases
- gastroesophageal reflux disease
- hiatal hernia
- smoking, alcohol and illegal drugs
- excessive caffeine intake
How can it be prevented?
You can help to prevent atrial fibrillation by leading a healthy lifestyle: maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and quitting smoking.
How is it treated?
The condition is not life-threatening in the short term, but should be treated where possible to overcome the risks mentioned above.
Treatment usually involves one or more of the following:
- Medication to control the irregular heart rhythm
- Blood-thinning medication (anticoagulants) to reduce the cha
- nce of stroke. This acts to prevent the blood pooling and clotting in the heart’s chambers.
- Catheter ablation surgery which involves the placement of a catheter along the veins of the leg to the heart. The catheter is then heated to burn the section of the heart that is causing the irregular rhythms, effectively killing the source of the electrical signals that are causing the heartbeat.
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