A heart arrhythmia is a blanket term given to irregular heartbeats. Atrial fibrillation, also known as Afib, is a type of arrhythmia. In this particular case, the heart is beating faster than it normally would. Patients with Afib also have a malfunction in how the upper and lower chambers of the heart are working. Under normal circumstances, both chambers work together to pump blood through the body.
When atrial fibrillation is present, the lower chambers cannot pump blood to the lungs properly or do not fill properly, and blood gathers in the heart. This type of arrhythmia can be present without a single symptom, or there can be several symptoms that occur as warning signs. There are three main types of A-fib. While symptoms are not type-specific, episode duration and treatment options are.
When noticeable symptoms occur, the most common one is described as a fluttery heartbeat. It is caused when the upper heart chambers quiver as a result of irregular electrical activity. Atrial fibrillation may also present a distinct rapid heartbeat, often noticed through feeling chest-thumping or increased chest pressure.
Other common symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Patients may notice increased weakness, heightened anxiety, and excessive sweating. Fainting and confusion may also occur.
In this type of atrial fibrillation, the irregular heartbeat starts suddenly. Episodes typically last a few seconds and end on their own. Additionally, the afib itself tends to stop within a week without being treated. This is one of the main reasons why heart rhythm treatment methods are not needed.
Most patients with paroxysmal a-fib do not experience symptoms and are typically unaware the fibrillation is even occurring. It is usually something that is picked up during routine exams. As a precaution, anticoagulant medication may be prescribed to reduce the chance of developing blood clots and reduce the risk of a stroke.
With this form of a-fib, episodes are more persistent. They last longer than a few seconds and the condition duration is longer than a week. There may be gaps between when episodes occur. In most cases, some sort of medication or intervention procedure is necessary to reset the heart rhythm back to normal.
Long-Term Persistent A-fib
Atrial fibrillation is considered long-term persistent afib when preventative measures have failed to provide a normal heart rhythm and that further treatment with these measures seems likely to continue to be unsuccessful. Medications may still be used to try to slow the heart rate and prevent clotting, but attempts to convert the abnormal heartbeat are stopped.
Episodes with this form of a-fib are often persistent and will continue for longer than a year without showing any signs of conversion. At this point, a more aggressive treatment approach may be necessary. These methods include implanting a pacemaker in the heart. A procedure called catheter ablation may also be performed to remove heart tissue that is causing the abnormal electrical activity.
There are numerous risk factors for developing afib. Age, high blood pressure, and family history are considered first. Other heart conditions, obesity, and existing chronic health conditions such as diabetes may also be factors. All of these factors can play a role in increasing the risk of atrial fibrillation. If any of these risk factors exist, doctors will regularly screen for the presence of an irregular heartbeat, even if there are no noticeable symptoms occurring.
Afib has two main treatment paths. Medications can involve anticoagulants, beta blockers, and anti-arrhythmic medicines. Protein, potassium, and sodium channel blockers may also be prescribed. Most often, a combination of medications are recommended. Procedures used in atrial fibrillation treatment include ablations, electroshock cardioversion, and pacemaker implantation. The course of treatment a doctor recommends will be largely dependent on the individual patient and the type of afib.
It is extremely important to be aware of the potential symptoms of atrial fibrillation as well as symptoms of other cardiac conditions and strokes. Because a-fib can be present without symptoms, the condition creates extremely hazardous circumstances for other issues. When blood pools excessively in the heart, clotting can lead to a stroke or heart attack. Symptoms of a heart attack include chest discomfort, pain in one or both arms, and shortness of breath. Stroke symptoms include face drooping, arm weakness or numbness, and difficulty speaking.
Although medications and procedures are available to assist in bringing the heart rate back to normal, it is also going to be necessary to make some lifestyle changes. Patients will need to begin a low-intensity exercise regimen, change to a heart-healthy diet, and avoid excessive alcohol consumption. In fact, it is dangerous to consume alcohol while taking many of the medications used for atrial fibrillation, so it should alcohol should be avoided completely.
In addition to continuing the treatment methods prescribed and making important lifestyle changes, it is equally important to continue with routine follow-ups. New or worsening symptoms should be reported immediately, including any side effects from medications. Regular appointments should be made for proper monitoring and periodic testing should also be done so that progress can be determined.