Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm that is caused by electrical activity problems in the upper chambers of the heart, called the atria. In atrial fibrillation, the heart beats irregularly, and is often faster or slower than normal. When the atria fibrillate, the blood tends to pool in the atrial chambers, leading to the formation of clots. These blood clots can leave the atria, travel to the brain, and cause a stroke. Atrial fibrillation can also lead to heart failure, if there is heart damage present.
There are more than two million people in the United States with atrial fibrillation. It most often develops in individuals who have high blood pressure, heart failure, disease of the heart's arteries, or disease of the heart valves. However, many people have no symptoms. It is most common in elderly individuals, and is seen in 17 percent of people over 80 years of age.
One-third of the people with atrial fibrillation do not have symptoms. They sometimes discover the problem during a routine doctor's exam. The people who do have symptoms may experience:
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Difficulty breathing.
- A faint feeling.
If there is underlying heart disease present, a person who has atrial fibrillation may feel:
- Chest pain.
- Severe difficulty breathing with fluid in the lungs.
- Loss of consciousness.
Atrial fibrillation can reoccur at different times and can be quite uncomfortable and frightening. It can also interfere with a person's daily activities and impact their quality of life.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, consult a MemorialCare Physician partner.
Follow Up Care
- If you smoke, quit.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine use.
We offer classes and support groups that focus on how to care for your heart and vascular system.
Antiarrhythmic drugs are medications that correct an irregular or abnormal heartbeat. In the case of atrial fibrillation, medications may be used to slow the heartbeat or they may be used to convert the atrial fibrillation to a normal, regular heart rhythm. By correcting these problems, antiarrhythmic drugs help the heart work more efficiently.
There are a wide variety of antiarrhythmic drugs available for the treatment of atrial fibrillation. The choice of medication depends on the type of atrial fibrillation, the length of time a person has had the fibrillation, age, the heart's condition, and other medical conditions. Our cardiologists have extensive experience in the use of drug therapy in the treatment of atrial fibrillation and can prescribe a medication suited to a specific type of atrial fibrillation. In many cases, atrial fibrillation cannot be cured with medications, but can be controlled.
Almost everyone with atrial fibrillation is required to take a blood-thinning drug to prevent the formation of clots within the atrial chambers. Your cardiologist and primary care physician play an important role in the regulation of this medication.
MemorialCare's experienced staff provides follow-up care for abnormal heart rhythms. Follow-up care may include:
- Pacemaker and Arrhythmia Clinic – Patients with an implanted pacemaker or cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) may receive outpatient follow-up care at Saddleback Memorial's clinic.