Atrial Fibrillation: A Heart Off Beat

By Geri K. Metzger, Staff Writer
10/3/2012 11:09:12 AM

Atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, is an abnormal heart rhythm. In A-fib, the heart's upper chambers (atria) quiver rather than beat in the coordinated manner needed to pump blood efficiently.

When the atria don't pump effectively, blood can pool and form clots there. If a blood clot breaks loose and travels in the blood vessels to the brain, it can cause a stroke. People with this condition are about five times more likely to have a stroke than people without it. One of the goals of treatment for A-fib is to reduce the risk for stroke.

A-fib can also trigger the lower heart chambers to beat too fast. When the lower chambers can't pump effectively, it can lead to heart failure.

Atrial fibrillation is often a result of underlying heart disease or high blood pressure. It can sometimes develop without a known cause. This is called lone atrial fibrillation.

What are the symptoms?

Atrial fibrillation may cause no obvious symptoms. Some people have symptoms such as:

-Heart palpitations
-Lightheadedness, fainting (syncope), or near-fainting
-Shortness of breath
-Chest pain

In some people A-fib comes and goes (paroxysmal). In others, it's chronic or persistent.

How is atrial fibrillation treated?

Treatment for atrial fibrillation may depend on:

-How long you've had it
-If it's the first time you've had it
-Your symptoms and the cause
-How fast the heart is beating
-What other medical problems you might have

Sometimes the heart resets itself, or treatment of an underlying condition such as hyperthyroidism cures it.

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