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What is Atrial Fibrillation?

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What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Overview:

Atrial Fibrillation, AF or A-Fib for short, is the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia or more simply put heart rhythm disorder. In a regular heart, the four chambers beat in a steady and organized pattern.  During A-Fib, the heart's atria (or upper chambers) beats out of sync with the two lower chambers (ventricle).[1] Although some patients experience no symptoms, for others the arrhythmias can cause symptoms that decrease their quality of life.  While AF is not life threatening, if left untreated, the complications of A-Fib can be deadly, which makes identifying and treating atrial fibrillation extremely important. 

Types of AF:

  • Paroxysmal - Episodes of atrial fibrillation occur sometimes, then stops and the heart returns to a normal rhythm. AF can last from seconds to days before the heart returns to normal.  
  • Persistent - Episodes do not stop by themselves.  Stopping the abnormal rhythm involves medication or a type of electric shock called Cardioversion.
  • Permanent - Episodes cannot be correct with medications or electrical shock. [2]

Symptoms:

The rapid and disorganized heart beats during an arrhythmia causes poor blood flow throughout the body.  Although some patients with atrial fibrillation experience no symptoms, inefficient blood flow and chaotic heartbeats can cause weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain and fatigue. [3]

Complications:

When the atria beats out of sync with the ventricles blood is able to pool.  The pooling blood can form a blood clot (also known as a thrombus).  If the clot breaks off and travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke[4]  In addition, if left untreated AF can weaken the heart and lead to heart failure if enough blood is not pumped throughout the body.

Diagnosis:

There are several tests that can be performed to check for an irregular heart beat. 

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) - An ECG is non-invasive test that record the heart's electrical activity.  
  • Holter monitor - A Holter monitor is a portable ECG that is worn for several days.
  • Echocardiogram - An echocardiogram allows a doctor to see how a patient's heart muscles are moving by using sounds waves to produce images of the heart.
  • Chest X-ray - A chest x-ray can be used to show fluid in the lungs or other potential complications of AF. [4]

Types of Treatment:

To best select a treatment for AF, the underlying cause must be addressed but in general, the best treatment is the least invasive option that most effectively controls the disorder.

  • Lifestyle Changes – Since heart disease and other heart disorders increase the risk of developing arrhythmias, lifestyle changes are encouraged.  Shifting to a regiment with healthy meals and exercise can alleviate symptoms cause by heart rhythm disorders. 
  • Medications – Medications can be used to control abnormal heart rhythms and reduce the risk of blood clots. 
  • Electronic Devices – Implantable devices such as a pacemaker or implanted cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) can be used to control heart rhythm.  
  • Catheter Ablation – Catheter ablations are a minimally invasive procedure that introduce flexible catheters (or tubes) in the blood vessels to destroy the heart tissue where the abnormal heart rhythms originate. [2]

As with any disease knowing the symptoms, listening to your body, and consulting a health profession are the best defenses. 

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Bibliography

  1. "Atrial Fibrillation." Mayo Clinic. 16/03/2014 <Web >
  2. "Atrial Fibrillation." Heart Rhythm Society. 16/03/2014 <Web >
  3. "Atrial Fibrillation." WebMD. 16/03/2014 <Web >
  4. "What is Atrial Fibrillation?." National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. 16/03/2014 <Web >

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