Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) | Heart & Vascular | Loyola Medicine

Atrial Fibrillation

Overview and Facts about Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a heart condition that causes an irregular or quivering heartbeat. This type of heartbeat, also known as an arrhythmia, occurs when the electrical signals that keep your heart beating at a steady, continuous rhythm do not function correctly.

If your heart does not beat steadily, blood can pool in some regions of the heart and form blood clots. These clots might block blood flow or break free and travel to other organs. When this happens, serious complications can arise.

If untreated, AFib makes you twice as likely to have a heart attack and five times as likely to have a stroke. However, proper treatment can increase your chances for a long, healthy life.

Symptoms and Signs of Atrial Fibrillation

Symptoms of AFib can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Faintness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Anxiety

People with AFib can experience symptoms continuously or sporadically. If you develop new symptoms, or if your symptoms suddenly worsen, seek medical attention right away.

Causes and Risk Factors of Atrial Fibrillation

AFib symptoms result from abnormal electrical signals in the heart, but the underlying cause of AFib is not always clear. A cardiovascular abnormality or another preexisting health condition can sometimes trigger AFib.

Health conditions that can increase your risk of developing AFib include:

Some lifestyle factors can also increase your risk of developing AFib. These factors include:

  • Advancing age
  • Obesity
  • Excessive drinking
  • Use of stimulants

In rare cases, a person without any risk factors might still develop AFib. These individuals are often less likely to develop life-threatening complications.

Tests and Diagnosis for Atrial Fibrillation

Tests that can help diagnose AFib include an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) or an echocardiogram.

An ECG detects and records the electrical signals that travel through your heart. In some cases, your doctor might have you use a small portable ECG device at home. These devices can help record your heart activity over a few days or weeks.

An echocardiogram uses sound waves to create an image of your heart in motion. This test allows your doctor to detect any structural problems or abnormal blood flow within your heart.

Treatment and Care for Atrial Fibrillation

Treatment for AFib often depends on which symptoms you experience. Your doctor also takes into account whether you have other health conditions that need treatment.

Certain medications can help reduce arrhythmia symptoms. Blood thinners prevent clots, reducing the risk of stroke, while other medications help slow your heart rate. If medication is not effective, your doctor might recommend surgery.