What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (say “A-tree-uhl fih-bruh-LAY-shun”) is an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia) that starts in the upper parts (atria) of the heart.
Normally, the heart beats in a strong, steady rhythm. In atrial fibrillation, a problem with the heart’s electrical system causes the atria to quiver, or fibrillate. The quivering upsets the normal rhythm between the atria and the lower parts (ventricles) of the heart. The lower parts may beat fast and without a regular rhythm.
Atrial fibrillation is dangerous because it greatly increases the risk of stroke. If the heart doesn’t beat strongly, blood can collect, or pool, in the atria. Pooled blood is more likely to form clots. If the heart pumps a clot into the bloodstream, the clot can travel to the brain and block blood flow, causing a stroke. Atrial fibrillation can also lead to heart failure.
What causes atrial fibrillation?
Conditions that damage or strain the heart commonly cause atrial fibrillation. These include:
- High blood pressure.
- Coronary artery disease (CAD).
- Heart attack.
- Heart valve disease, especially diseases of the mitral valve.
Atrial fibrillation may also be caused by:
- Other medical problems, such as lung disease, pneumonia, or a high thyroid level (hyperthyroidism).
- Heart surgery.
- Heavy alcohol use. Having more than 3 drinks a day over many years can cause long-lasting atrial fibrillation. Drinking a large amount of alcohol at one time (binge drinking) may also cause a spell (episode) of atrial fibrillation.
- Use of stimulants. These include caffeine, nicotine, medicines such as decongestants, and illegal drugs such as cocaine.
- Use of some prescription medicines, such as albuterol or theophylline.
Sometimes doctors can’t find the cause. Doctors call this lone atrial fibrillation.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may include:
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
- Feeling out of breath.
- Feeling weak and tired.
- A feeling that the heart is fluttering, racing, or pounding (palpitations).
- A feeling that the heart is beating unevenly.
- Chest pain (angina).
Atrial fibrillation is common, especially in older adults, and it may not cause obvious symptoms. If you have any of the symptoms listed, see your doctor. Finding and treating atrial fibrillation right away can help you avoid serious problems.
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