Community Health Network

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Atrial fibrillation

A-fib is one of the most common heart arrhythmias, affecting millions of people in the U.S. It is a rapid, irregular heart rhythm, originating in the atrial (upper) chambers of the heart, largely due to abnormal electrical impulses.

Doctors who treat a-fib are called electrophysiologists. To be referred to one at Community, please call 800-777-7775.

After months of falling and passing out, Robyn, a young yoga instructor, went to Community Heart and Vascular. She discovered she was a perfect candidate for a pacemaker that is MRI-compatible - so injuries are never a concern. Today, Robyn's heart relies on it routinely. And she may be one of the rare few actually looking forward to turning forty.

What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

A-fib commonly causes palpitations and fatigue and significantly increases the risk of stroke. At rest, a normal heart beats approximately 60 – 100 times per minute. However, in a person with a-fib, that heart rate can climb sharply to 180 and higher. Through testing, we can recognize abnormalities in the heart's rhythm before any obvious symptoms are noticed.

Whether it's caused by nerves, exercise or too much caffeine, most people experience a racing heart from time to time. Most cases are harmless, but a-fib is an actual medical condition and it may often be long lasting. Some people with a-fib experience no symptoms at all. But for others, a-fib may cause:

  • Chest pain
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Fatigue
  • Light-headiness
  • Palpitations
  • Severe shortness of breath
The signs and symptoms of a-fib vary, and may have a sudden onset. They can last a short time and end spontaneously or may continue indefinitely.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

Your heart is divided into four chambers: the two upper chambers called atria, and two lower chambers called ventricles. In order for blood to be pumped through your body, a group of cells sends electrical impulses to the atria that signal your heart to contract. Contractions of the heart send about five quarts of blood through your body every minute. In people with a-fib, the impulses are sent chaotically. The atria quiver instead of beat; the blood isn't completely pumped out and may pool and potentially clot. Certain medicines (including digitalis, adenosine, and theophylline) can increase the risk of a-fib. Sometimes, a-fib may be linked to heavy alcohol, caffeine, or drug use, as well as to infections or inherited factors.

Are you at risk?

A-fib appears more commonly in women than in men. You could also be at greater risk for a-fib if you are over age 60 or you have one of the following conditions:

  • Heart defect from birth (congenital heart defect)
  • Heart disease due to high blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy)
  • Heart valve disease
  • Long-term lung disease (such as COPD)
  • Overactive thyroid gland
  • Past heart surgery
  • Sleep apnea

Diagnosing atrial fibrillation

A-fib can sometimes be diagnosed with a stethoscope during an exam by a doctor or other health care provider and is confirmed or diagnosed with an electrocardiogram (EKG).

Treatment for atrial fibrillation

Medications and electrical cardioversion are common treatments for atrial fibrillation, but do not cure it. One treatment to consider if medications are not working is catheter ablation, an effective, low-risk treatment for abnormal rapid heart rhythms. Catheter ablation treats fast or rapid heartbeats or heart rhythms (tachycardia) with a high rate of success. The catheter ablation procedure is done in the EP lab in the hospital. Catheter ablation removes the abnormal circuits or tissues that start and maintain abnormal, fast heart rhythms. Although there are several forms of catheter ablation, the most commonly used is radiofrequency ablation, or RFA.

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