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Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of a heart arrhythmia. Arrhythmias are conditions where the heart either beats too fast, too slow, or simply in an erratic fashion. It is typically caused by a problem with the body’s electrical system. The heart receives improper or uncharacteristic signals from the brain, causing the top two chamber of the heart, the atria, to flutter or rapidly contract. However, they often don’t fully contract, resulting in inefficient blood pumping by the heart and potentially blood pooling in the top two chambers and increasing the affected individual’s risk of stroke.

Fast Facts about Atrial Fibrillation

  • Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of a heart arrhythmia. It is simply an abnormal rhythm of contraction of one or both of the top two chambers of the heart, known as the atria
  • The exact cause of atrial fibrillation is still mostly unknown, although it is understood that it typically is caused by the malfunctioning of the heart’s electrical signaling system
  • Atrial fibrillation is very common. Males, especially Caucasians, are typically at a higher risk. While your risk for being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation increases as you age, about 50% of those affected are under the age of 75
  • The main goals of treatment are to prevent blood clots from forming, restore a normal heart rate and facilitate a return to a “normal” heart rhythm

Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

The exact cause of atrial fibrillation is still widely unknown. However, studies have proven that other heart-related conditions, such as high blood pressure and coronary heart disease can increase a person’s risk of being affected by atrial fibrillation.

Essentially, this heart arrhythmia is the result of a problem with the body’s electrical system.  When this system sends erratic or spontaneous signals to the heart, it causes the muscle to contract in a pattern that is unnatural. Atrial fibrillation is simply one of these patterns.

Risk Factors for Atrial Fibrillation

There are literally millions of people worldwide who are experiencing atrial fibrillation at any given moment. Among U.S. research studies, scientists have found males, especially those of Caucasian backgrounds, to be at a higher risk than others. While your risk for being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation increases as you age, about 50% of those affected are under the age of 75.

Those with other heart conditions, such a high blood pressure, congenital heart failure, or coronary heart disease are at an increased risk for atrial fibrillation. Furthermore, studies have shown that hyperthyroidism, obesity, diabetes and lung disease are also catalysts for atrial fibrillation. It is not uncommon to see these diseases listed as risk factors for a variety of conditions, because as one system goes down it places strain on another system.  Eventually, something has to give.

Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation

The process of diagnosing atrial fibrillation follows steps that are characteristic to just about any other condition. First, your physician will inquire about your family medical history. Then, they will conduct a physical examination, which will include listening to your heart and breathing. From there, if they have concerns about your heart, they may recommend any number of a variety of tests.

Something that is unique about atrial fibrillation is that it doesn’t always present with signs and symptoms. In fact, it often goes undetected for months or even years before showing up on a routine physical exam or EKG. From there, it is not uncommon to be asked to be placed under a stress test, where the medical professional in charge will either ask you to perform some sort of activity to increase your heart rate or inject a chemical that will do so artificially.

Electrical cardioversion is a very common treatment method for atrial fibrillation. In this procedure, the patient is given medications to relax and a physician or surgeon applies a series of low-voltage shocks to the heart in order to “realign” the process and spur the heart into a normal rhythm.

Additional methods of diagnosis can include echocardiography, chest x-rays and blood tests.

Treatment Options for Atrial Fibrillation

In general, treatment of atrial fibrillation is custom-designed base on the frequency and severity of your symptoms. Medical practitioners will treat someone with frequent, severe symptoms much more aggressively than someone with an occasional bout of dizziness.

The main goals of treatment are to prevent blood clots from forming, restore a normal heart rate and facilitate a return to a “normal” heart rhythm.

To prevent blood clots, physicians will often prescribe medications such as warfarin, heparin and aspiring to thin the blood. This requires frequent blood tests to analyze the effectiveness of the medicine prescribed to the patient.

The most common treatment for atrial fibrillation is the use of beta blockers or calcium channel blockers to control the rate of ventricle contractions. By slowing these contractions, the ventricles have more time to completely fill with blood, restoring a normal heart rate and alleviating most symptoms of atrial fibrillation.

In the most serious cases of heart arrhythmia, doctors will recommend the emplacement of a pacemaker. This procedure involves the destruction of the AV node, the source of electrical impulses received by the heart. Afterwards, a surgeon will emplace a pacemaker, a device which is programmed to send the same electric signals to your heart in a pattern and fashion that is custom-tailored to your needs. Although one of the most extreme treatments for atrial fibrillation, it is often the most successful in returning the heart to a normal rate and rhythm.

Prevention of Atrial Fibrillation

The biggest contributor to prevention of atrial fibrillation is a lifestyle change. Your diet should be low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. Furthermore, you should avoid smoking and avoid excessive drinking. Finally, using these practices in combination with regular physical exercise will help you maintain a healthy weight and decrease your risk for atrial fibrillation.

For those diagnosed with atrial fibrillation but seeking to prevent a worsening of their condition, seek out information on the DASH diet. Also, make sure to talk to your doctor about treating any comorbid conditions you may have. For example, maintain a healthy blood sugar level if you’re diabetic or be consistent with your medications if you have high blood pressure.

Coping with Atrial Fibrillation

People with atrial fibrillation can live normal, active lifestyles. However, it is important to visit your doctor regularly in order to receive consistent medical care for your condition. For some, it is too late to try and prevent the condition from occurring. At a certain point, the goal becomes simply to manage the symptoms and to adopt behaviors and a lifestyle that prevent it from worsening.

Your doctor can quickly and easily help you determine which diet, exercise plan and medication plan are best for you. However, the biggest concern for those living with atrial fibrillation is avoiding over the counter medications and supplements with stimulants in them. These substances often increase the heart rate of the user and can sometimes send a patient’s heart back into arrhythmia. Always consult your physician before adding a new medication or supplement to your routine.

Where to Find More Information: Heart Rhythm Society