Atrial fibrillation, also known as Afib, is an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia) that starts in the atria, or the upper chambers of the heart. According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 2.7 million Americans are living with Afib.
Although many atrial fibrillation triggers are common, each person’s experience is unique. So, being aware of your condition, along with your ability to identify the triggers that can potentially cause an episode, are important in helping you control atrial fibrillation symptoms, which may include:
- Fluttering, racing or pounding of the heart
- Dizzy or lightheaded feeling
- Shortness of breath
- Chest discomfort
Because the symptoms vary so widely in each individual, Afib can be difficult to diagnose. The condition is normally diagnosed via an EKG or a heart monitor. Some patients identify alcohol consumption as a trigger, but the amount can vary from one drink to several, depending on the individual. Also, some patients experience an Afib episode at night while lying on their left side, while others experience symptoms in the morning. Some symptoms come and go; others are persistent, meaning that the arrhythmia is present most or all of the time, unless a shock (cardioversion) is performed. Often, people don’t experience any symptoms at all.
Factors that may contribute to atrial fibrillation include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart valve disease
- Cardiomyopathy with weakened heart muscle
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD/emphysema or asthma)
- Sleep apnea
- Heart failure
- Coronary artery disease
Because Afib is often a progressive disease that can take its toll on the heart and lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications, early diagnosis is important.
Treatment for Afib depends on an individual’s symptoms and risk of stroke. A procedure known as electrical cardioversion can be used in patients with atrial fibrillation. Although it is very effective in temporarily restoring the normal rhythm, Afib eventually recurs unless other measures are taken. Usually rhythm-controlling drugs are tried first. However, these drugs are only modestly effective, and are often not well tolerated or not preferred. For patients whose quality of life is negatively affected by Afib, catheter ablation is an effective treatment option.
The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.