Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular heartbeat, also called arrhythmia. AFib is the most common type of arrhythmia, affecting up to 6.1 million people in the U.S. AFib gets its name from the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) quivering rather than beating (fibrillation). It is basically a communication problem between the heart’s two upper chambers. They cannot coordinate to pump blood when the heart is in AFib. This can cause blood to pool in the upper heart chamber and may form a clot.

Clotting is why people with AFib have double the risk of heart-related deaths and 5 times the risk of stroke, according to the American Heart Association.

Also, AFib is often “silent” – with no symptoms at all. When symptoms are felt, they often come and go. The good news is that with the right tools, you can identify AFib and treat it, reducing your chances of a more serious medical event.

AFib causes and triggers

AFib is more common in people over 60, but can happen at any age. It can also run in families.

There are some factors that increase risk:

  • Prior heart attack or other heart conditions
  • Sleep apnea
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Athletic over-exertion

While some can feel when they’re in AFib, others don’t feel anything abnormal. People with AFib are advised to avoid certain triggers that may cause the heart to go into AFib.

Common triggers include:

  • Excessive alcohol
  • Too much caffeine, especially from energy drinks
  • Anxiety or stress
  • Poor sleep (including sleep apnea)

AFib signs, symptoms, and when to see a doctor

As soon as you experience any AFib symptoms, see your doctor right away, even if they seem to subside. Remember, your heart could be in AFib without feeling symptoms. So if you do, it’s essential to get checked by your doctor.

Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing heart, fluttering, palpitations, or a heartbeat that feels irregular
  • Fainting
  • Unusual anxiety
  • Fatigue, dizziness, or lightheadedness

Risks of having AFib

The biggest risk faced by people with AFib is stroke. In fact, people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke than those without it.

The risk of eventual heart failure with AFib also doubles as a result of the heart muscle gradually weakening.

How AFib is treated

Many patients with AFib need medication to lower their risk of stroke. In some cases, medical intervention may be necessary to get the heart back to its normal rate and rhythm.

Medications include:

  • Blood thinners (also called anticoagulants)
  • Heart rate or rhythm controlling drugs (e.g., ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers)

AFib interventions include:

  • Cardioversion—resets the heart to a normal rhythm using an electrical impulse
  • Catheter ablation—carefully destroys the precise area of the heart that is causing the faulty heart rhythm
  • Pacemaker—implants a device that prevents or corrects an abnormal heart rhythm
  • Surgery—creates a block that prevents faulty heart rhythms from triggering AFib

Reducing AFib complications

If you have AFib, you can take an active role to lower your chances of having complications associated with it.

Here are some tips for living healthier and reducing your risk of complications:

  • Participate in regular physical activity
  • Follow a heart-healthy eating plan
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Monitor and manage high blood pressure
  • Don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol excessively, and don’t drink too much caffeine

AFib and Smart Devices

Imagine if AFib could be detected early, so patients were able to take control before having any issues. New technologies, like the latest Apple Watch, are now making it possible to detect abnormal heart rhythms, record data using an electrocardiogram (EKG), and share these results with your doctor.

The watch is approved by the FDA, a first for a direct-to-consumer product of its kind. Not only can it perform an EKG in 30 seconds, but it also detects atrial fibrillation, as well as monitors for a heart rate that’s too low.

Concerned about your heart health? Take our Heart Risk Assessment below.

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