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What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (pronounced: ay-tree-all fib-rill-ay-shun) is an irregular heartbeat that is typically very fast.
Your heart has 4 compartments called chambers. The top 2 chambers are called the atria (pronounced: ay-tree-ah). The bottom 2 chambers are called the ventricles (pronounced: ven-trick-ells). During atrial fibrillation, the atria stop beating regularly. Instead, they tremble (fibrillate) in a disorganized way. This can cause an irregular, and sometimes very fast, heartbeat that decreases the ability of the atria to pump blood into the ventricles as effectively.
Who is at risk for atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation is most common in people older than 60 years of age. However, you can get atrial fibrillation at any age.
Sometimes, atrial fibrillation has no cause, but your risk goes up if you have any of the following:
- Heart disease caused by high cholesterol
- A larger heart size caused by high blood pressure
- Damage to a heart valve
- An overactive thyroid gland
- Lung disease
- Heavy drinking of alcohol
- Use of certain medicines
What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?
The most common symptom is a feeling like your heart is beating very fast for no reason (called palpitations). Other common symptoms include an irregular pulse, dizziness, feeling tired, shortness of breath and chest pain.
Sometimes, atrial fibrillation can cause a blood clot to form in your heart. If this clot breaks off and travels to your brain, you might have a stroke.
In some people, atrial fibrillation doesn’t cause any symptoms.
How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?
It can be diagnosed when your healthcare provider does a physical exam, by an electrocardiogram (a simple, painless test that checks the electrical activity of your heart), Holter monitor (a monitor that continuously records the heart’s rhythm over a period of time during normal activity), or patient activated event recorder.
How is atrial fibrillation treated?
The treatment for atrial fibrillation depends on how severe your symptoms are. It also depends on whether you have heart disease or have recently had a stroke. Treatment is directed toward controlling the underlying cause.
If your symptoms are mild, you might be given medicine to slow down your heartbeat. If the atrial fibrillation does not go away or if you are having lots of symptoms, your healthcare provider may decide to try electrical cardioversion (pronounced: kar-deeoh-ver-shun). For this treatment, you are given a medicine to help you keep calm. Then, your heart is given an electric shock to make it return to its normal rhythm.
You may also be given a blood-thinning medicine such as aspirin or warfarin. You will need to take this medicine if you are going to have cardioversion, if you have had a stroke, or if your healthcare provider thinks you are at risk for having a stroke in the future.
Your healthcare provider may ask you to limit your use of alcohol and caffeine, or avoid using them at all. They can increase your heart rate.
What can I expect in the future?
Treating the cause of your atrial fibrillation often returns your heart rate to normal. If your healthcare provider can’t treat the cause, you might need to keep taking medicine to control your heart rate. To avoid complications, take your medicine just the way your healthcare provider tells you. If you are taking a blood-thinning medicine, your healthcare provider will probably recommend regular blood tests.
You may experience complications of atrial fibrillation or side effects from your treatment.
Contact your healthcare provider if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Nova Scotia:
Park Lane – Mall Level 3
5657 Spring Garden Road, Box 245 Halifax, NS B3J 3R4
Telephone (902) 423-7530 Toll free 1-800-423-4432 Fax (902) 492-1464
Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation Website at: