Atrial fibrillation, sometimes called AFib, is a serious irregular heartbeat that affects millions of Americans, especially those over 60.
Normally, your heartbeat is controlled by a structure in the upper part of your heart that sends an electrical signal to the rest of your heart that keeps your heart beating at about 60 to 100 beats a minute.
However, in atrial fibrillation that structure causes heartbeats to start from many locations in upper chambers of the heart, or the atria. “These irregular heartbeats all over the atria cause the upper part of the heart to quiver like a bag of worms,” says Danya L. Dinwoodey, MD, a cardiologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. It can cause your heart to beat very quickly and inefficiently, which can be dangerous.
What Causes of AFib?
The cause can vary from person to person, and sometimes it’s difficult to determine. In many cases, there is a combination of causes. “The most common causes are high blood pressure or an abnormal heart valve,” explains Dr. Dinwoodey.
Other causes include:
- Coronary artery disease (the clogging of the arteries of the heart that may cause a heart attack)
- Heart failure
- Heart defects you are born with
- Pericarditis (an infection of the lining of the sac that surrounds the heart)
- An overactive thyroid gland
Who is At Risk for AFib?
The biggest risk factor for atrial fibrillation is age. The condition occurs more often in people over 60, and the risk for developing it increases as you get older.
Other common risk factors include:
- Sleep apnea
- Lung disease
- Family history of atrial fibrillation
- Heavy use of alcohol
What are Symptoms of AFib?
Not everyone who has atrial fibrillation experiences symptoms. “Some people are very aware of their symptoms and can tell right away when an episode of atrial fibrillation starts and stops,” Dinwoodey says. “Other people may not notice any symptoms. For people who have symptoms, the most common ones are decreased tolerance for exercise and feeling a flutter in the chest.”
Other symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
There are two different types of AFib, and the frequency of symptoms varies with each type. Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation begins suddenly and often stops on its own. Persistent atrial fibrillation lasts for more than a week, and while it may stop on its own, it frequently requires treatment. Both types may become permanent over time.
If you believe that you are at risk for atrial fibrillation or if you think you’ve experienced an irregular heartbeat, make an appointment to get evaluated by your doctor. It can lead to serious problems and additional complications over time. Fortunately, there are many types of treatment that can help keep this condition under control. For more information, check out these FAQs from the American Heart Association.
Should I get a Medical ID?
Any time you have a serious heart condition like atrial fibrillation, you should notify health care providers you see. Engraving AFib or atrial fibrillation on a medical ID is an easy way to make sure that your condition will be known in cases of emergency.