Atrial fibrillation, often called AFib, is an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. Many people describe AFib episodes as feeling like their heart flip-flops, skips a beat, or beats hard in their chest. In an otherwise healthy person, AFib isn’t usually considered serious. In someone with certain conditions, such as diabetes or heart conditions, AFib puts you at risk for blood clots, heart failure, and stroke.
Normally, the four chambers of the heart work together, contracting and relaxing to pump blood through the heart. During AFib, the two upper chambers, the atria, beat irregularly and don’t pump the blood out of the heart effectively. This allows the blood to pool, sometimes causing a clot to form. The clot can then travel through the bloodstream and may lodge in an artery leading to the brain. When the flow of blood to the brain is blocked, it can cause a stroke.
Causes of Atrial Fibrillation
The most common cause of AFib is an abnormality or damage to the heart’s structure. This includes heart-related conditions such as coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, faulty heart valves, or heart attack. AFib can also occur because of a heart defect at birth. Some medications and stimulants like caffeine and tobacco can cause AFib, along with overactive thyroid glands and other metabolic imbalances. Even viral infections or stress caused by surgery or illness can lead to atrial fibrillation.
AFib and Stroke
Stroke isn’t the only risk from AFib, but it is the most significant one. While AFib doubles your risk of having a heart-related death, it makes it five times more likely that you will have a stroke. An estimated 15% of strokes result from untreated AFib. An estimated 2.7 million people in this country have AFib, opening the door to many more potential stroke victims. The reason awareness is needed is that many of those people don’t know they have AFib, or even what it is.
Recognize the Symptoms
AFib doesn’t feel the same for everyone. Your heartbeat might feel like a ‘flutter’ or feel like it’s running away. Symptoms may occur during certain activities, such as walking upstairs, leaning over, or exercising. Other symptoms you may have include:
- A general feeling of fatigue
- Excessive sweating
- Faintness or confusion
- Shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest
You should visit Central Montana Heart and Vascular Institute if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. If you experience pain or pressure in the chest, seek emergent care. These can be symptoms of a heart attack.
If you have AFib, you should also be familiar with the symptoms of a stroke. These include drooping of one side of the face, weakness or numbness in one arm, slurred speech, or an inability to speak. A stroke always requires emergency treatment.
For some people, treating AFib symptoms is as simple as changing their habits or diet. For example, avoiding caffeine might help reduce your risk from AFib. Those with underlying conditions will need to have them diagnosed and treated. The right treatment for you depends on the cause of your AFib. Once AFib is diagnosed, your doctor may prescribe medications to control your heart rate. Other medications like a blood thinner might be used to prevent strokes.
September is National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month and an ideal time to schedule an advanced heart screening at Central Montana Heart and Vascular Institute. Go online to schedule an appointment today - https://www.cmhvi406.org/