Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heartbeat, but if left untreated it can cause serious complications and even death. Knowing what to look for and how to treat it could save your life. Here’s everything you need to know.

9 minute read

Last Updated July 6, 2020

Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms - Cardiovascular Diseases - 1MD

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heartbeat. It causes interruption to healthy blood flow, and this can put you at risk for stroke and blood clots. Millions of people in the U.S. have atrial fibrillation. 

It can be temporary, coming and going, or more permanent, but if left untreated it can be deadly. Knowing what to look for and how to treat it could save your life.

What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat. Typically, your heart beats in a steady and strong rhythm, but with atrial fibrillation, the electrical system of the heart causes chambers of the heart to quiver. 

The two atria (upper chambers of your heart) are affected, which disrupts blood flow into the ventricles (lower chambers) and throughout the body. When the heartbeat is not strong, blood can pool and is more likely to causes clots. 

What Causes Atrial Fibrillation?

Your heart has four chambers, and when these four chambers do not work together, atrial fibrillation occurs. As a result of faulty electrical signaling, the atria become out of sync with the ventricles, and they contract irregularly.

 

There are a number of conditions associated with atrial fibrillation that you need to know about. 

Hypertension
Congestive heart failure
♦ Coronary artery disease
♦ Heart valve disease
♦ Overactive thyroid gland
♦ Thyroid disease
♦ Pericarditis (inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart)
♦ Binge drinking

Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms

In some cases, people do not experience any symptoms, but if you do, they will include the following:

Chest pain
♦ Fatigue
♦ Heart palpitations (heart is skipping a beat or beating too fast)
♦ Weakness
Shortness of breath
♦ Fainting
Lightheadedness

Symptoms will vary depending on the severity of your condition, and they are usually experienced for several minutes or hours at a time. Symptoms that continue to last over several days indicate that the condition is chronic.

Atrial Fibrillation Diagnosis

There are a few tests that can be done to evaluate what is going on with your heart and can diagnose atrial fibrillation. A physical exam is done first, which includes checking your pulse, blood pressure, and lung function. 

An atrial fibrillation ECG (electrocardiogram) will also be done to record the electrical impulses of your heart. Sometimes atrial fibrillation may not appear during an ECG, and a portable ECG monitor can be worn to capture it at another time.

Atrial Fibrillation Treatment

Treatments are designed to reset the heart rhythm and prevent blood clotting to reduce the risk of stroke. A treatment program will depend on how long you have had atrial fibrillation as well as the underlying cause. 

If there is an underlying cause such as a thyroid disorder, treatment of this condition can help correct your heart rhythm. Medications will be tried first, reserving surgery for the most severe cases.

Drugs such as blood thinners and heart rate controllers will be prescribed to help reduce the risk of clots and control the heart rate, respectively. Antiplatelet and anticoagulant medications can be used to reduce the formation of clots. Beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers are the options for medications that help to control your heart rate and rhythm.

Atrial Fibrillation Diet

There is no specific diet that helps prevent or treat atrial fibrillation, but following a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle will improve your chances of preventing the condition. An atrial fibrillation diet will involve plenty of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, and oats. 

Proteins from fish as well as foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial for heart health. There are also foods that are known to make atrial fibrillation worse and should be avoided. Some of these are:

♦ Salt and saturated fats
♦ Gluten, which increases inflammation
♦ Caffeine, which makes the heart work harder
♦ Alcohol
♦ Grapefruit, which interferes with atrial fibrillation medications
♦ Vitamin K-rich foods, which can interfere with blood-thinning medications.

Natural Treatments for Atrial Fibrillation

Dietary recommendations are the first natural approach for atrial fibrillation, but your doctor may also recommend certain supplements. If you are low in certain nutrients that are vital to heart health, the doctor may suggest you start taking:

Fish oil
♦ Magnesium
♦ Taurine
♦ Coenzyme Q10
♦ Hawthorn berry

Other natural treatments that are effective for atrial fibrillation include getting regular exercise and lowering stress levels. Moderate to low-intensity exercises such as walking, swimming, and cycling are great for promoting heart health. These work to strengthen your heart as well as alleviate stress. 

In addition to exercise, you can try meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and deep breathing exercises to reduce stress in your life

Atrial Fibrillation Surgery

In severe cases, surgery may be recommended. Surgery can be performed to help the heart muscle pump blood more efficiently as well as to help prevent heart damage. The surgical options available include:

1. Electrical cardioversion: a brief electrical shock resets the rhythm of the heart.

2. Catheter ablation: A catheter delivers radio waves to the heart and destroys abnormal tissue that is sending out irregular impulses.

3. Atrioventricular (AV) node ablation: Radio waves are used to destroy the AV node, which connects the atria and ventricles, so the atria can no longer send signals to the ventricles. A pacemaker then needs to be inserted to maintain a regular rhythm.

What Are the Variations of Atrial Fibrillation?

Originally atrial fibrillation was only categorized as acute or chronic, but it has since been changed to be classified according to four different types.

Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation: An episode that lasts for a week, and you may not need treatment for this type, but you should still see your doctor.

Persistent atrial fibrillation: Lasts longer than a week, and may stop on its own. A low voltage current can be used to restore a normal heart rhythm in this case.

Long-standing persistent atrial fibrillation: Lasts longer than a year, and it will require treatment of ablation to correct the condition.

Permanent atrial fibrillation: A more chronic version that cannot be corrected by treatments. This usually requires long-term heart rate care and medications to lower your odds of a stroke.

Atrial Fibrillation Statistics

♦ It is estimated that between 2.7 and 6.1 million Americans have atrial fibrillation.

♦ Approximately 2 percent of people younger than 65 years of age have atrial fibrillation.

♦ African Americans are less likely to have the condition as compared to those of European descent.

♦ More women experience atrial fibrillation because they live longer than men, and risk for the condition increases with age.

Hypertension accounts for 14 percent to 22 percent of all atrial fibrillation cases.

Atrial Fibrillation and Children

Atrial fibrillation is very rare among children, but the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment are similar to those of adults. The difficulty with children lies in the fact that they may not be able to tell you how they are feeling during an episode of atrial fibrillation, and sometimes they do not have symptoms at all.

Once diagnosed, the condition is treatable and manageable in children, so it is important to contact your doctor right away if you suspect your child has atrial fibrillation.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

Taking blood thinners is the most common treatment for atrial fibrillation, as it reduces the risk for blood clots, and this improves the overall outlook for those with the condition. Seeking treatment and regular follow-ups with your doctor is the best prevention as well as the best treatment approach. 


You can control your symptoms and lead an active and healthy life with atrial fibrillation, so long as you adhere to the recommended treatment program.

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