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A cardiologist holds a stethoscope to check her patient's heart rate and rhythm.

Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular, often rapid heart rhythm (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots in the heart. Stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related conditions increase when someone experiences atrial fibrillation.

The main goals of atrial fibrillation treatment are controlling your heart rate, regaining a normal rhythm, and reducing your risk of stroke. The first form of treatment physicians turn to is medication. If medication doesn’t help, surgery will be the next option.

Stroke risk can increase in those who take blood thinners to reduce clotting. Physicians often prescribe blood thinners to AFib patients to prevent clot-related strokes, but it can also increase the risk of stroke related to bleeding and blood vessel rupture. There is an alternative to blood thinners that helps reduce the risk of all types of stroke: the WATCHMAN device. The device is a quarter-sized implant that sits in the left atrial appendage, reducing the risk of stroke and allowing patients to ease off of blood thinning medication.

Symptoms of AFib

  • Sensations of a fast, fluttering, or pounding heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness

Causes of atrial fibrillation

Classifications of atrial fibrillation

  • Occasional. Symptoms come and go, only lasting a few minutes to hours. Some people with this type of AFib will need treatment.
  • Persistent. The heart rhythm doesn’t go back to normal on its own, and some form of treatment, cardioversion or medication, is needed to correct it.
  • Long-standing persistent. Lasting more than 12 months, this type of atrial fibrillation is continuous and will need to be treated.
  • Permanent. A regular heart rhythm cannot be restored without the help of medication to control the heart rate and prevent blood clots.

Risk factors for AFib

  • Age. As a person gets older, the risk of atrial fibrillation increases.
  • Heart disease. Anyone with heart disease, like coronary artery disease and heart valve problems, has a higher risk of developing AFib.
  • High blood pressure. The risk of atrial fibrillation is higher in someone with high blood pressure.
  • Thyroid disease. Thyroid problems can cause heart rhythm problems, including atrial fibrillation.
  • Other chronic health conditions. Some chronic conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, and sleep apnea increase a person’s risk of AFib.
  • Alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol can produce occasional atrial fibrillation.
  • Obesity. People who have obesity are at a higher risk of atrial fibrillation.
  • Family history. Atrial fibrillation can be passed down in some families.

Tips for preventing atrial fibrillation

  • Eat a nutritious diet
  • Get regular exercise and maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid smoking
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine intake
  • Manage stress

Treating atrial fibrillation

  • Medications like beta blockers or blood thinners
  • Cardioversion therapy
  • Ablation

Palpitations are sensations you feel when your heart rate speeds up, or when you can feel it thumping in your chest. They are common, and causes include exercise, stress, and caffeine. Arrhythmias are disruptions in regular heart rhythm and can have more serious symptoms, such as chest pain, light-headedness, and shortness of breath. If you believe you are experiencing arrhythmias, schedule an appointment with a St. Joseph Health cardiologist.

Caring for your heart health is the best and easiest way to prevent heart disease. Eating a heart-healthy diet, staying active, getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding stress can keep your heart strong.

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