Published on May 05, 2022

Don't Miss a Beat

heart made of yarn

Atrial fibrillation causes the heart to pump ineffectively and increases your risk for stroke.

For anyone who experiences episodes, minutes to hours in duration, of sudden shortness of breath, chest pressure, weakness, dizziness or palpitations, one consideration is atrial fibrillation.

Symptoms & Causes

Atrial fibrillation is the most common sustained rhythm disturbance and affects more than two million Americans annually. When this occurs, the normal “wave” of electrical activity which sets the top chambers of the heart (the atria) in motion is lost. Instead, we observe a chaotic and disorganized pattern of activity, like “raindrops in a pond.” This renders the atria unable to contract effectively, and the rapid irregular impulses drive the muscular lower chambers (the ventricles) to beat rapidly and irregularly, as well.

Although this rhythm may be associated with many processes such as high blood pressure, heart failure, thyroid disease, valvular heart disease, alcohol intake and advancing age, sometimes we cannot identify a cause.

Concerns

The heart's pump becomes less efficient, sometimes causing blood to stagnate in the upper chambers. If this happens, there is potential for clot formation and a stroke.

Initially, episodes may occur intermittently. As time goes by, episodes tend to occur more frequently and last longer until eventually the rhythm becomes permanent. Although someone can live for an extended period of time with atrial fibrillation, overall quality of life is reduced and life expectancy may be diminished, as well. Efforts to restore and maintain sinus rhythm are best achieved early on in the course of this problem.

Treatment

Although atrial fibrillation cannot be cured, it can be treated. The initial strategy is anticoagulation to decrease the risk of stroke or embolic events. We try to control the rate of the lower chambers and return the patient to normal heart rhythm. Although medications are often used to maintain normal heart rhythm and do work in a small percentage of patients, their overall effectiveness has been clearly demonstrated to be low.

Alternate techniques, such as selective cauterization or “ablation” of critical portions of the atrial tissue, have proven to be effective in 50-80% of patients, particularly if it is applied early on in the course of this rhythm problem.

If you suspect you may have atrial fibrillation, please inform your health care provider.