Atrial fibrillation, sometimes called AFib or AF, is the most common type of heart arrhythmia. Arrhythmias happen when the heart beats too slowly, too quickly, or irregularly. In AFib, the two upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly. This causes the lower chambers of the heart not to properly fill with blood. While some people with atrial fibrillation experience no or few symptoms, the event can cause palpitations, lightheadedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, poor exercise tolerance, and chest discomfort. Knowing the warning signs can help individuals seek medical attention promptly and avoid complications.
Many factors may put a person at higher risk for atrial fibrillation. Getting older is one of the biggest risk factors; nine percent of people aged 65 and older have the condition. High blood pressure and obesity also significantly increase one's risk of developing AFib. Other risk factors include
The human heart has four chambers: two upper chambers or atria and two lower chambers or ventricles. A natural pacemaker called the sinus node regulates heartbeat. When a person has AFib, the impulses that tell the upper chambers to contract arise from parts of the heart other than the sinoatrial node. This causes chaotic beats in the atria that a person with AFib perceives as heart palpitations. These beats can be uncomfortable and may be described as a racing sensation, an out-of-sync feeling, or even a flip-flopping in the chest.
Atrial fibrillation can cause the heart to pump blood inefficiently, leading to overall weakness and fatigue. Though high blood pressure is a risk factor for atrial fibrillation, the irregular pumping of the heart can also lead to an unsafe sudden drop in blood pressure or contribute to persistent low blood pressure. This may make a person feel like their energy levels are low.
Inefficient heartbeats cause impaired circulation. This means parts of the body may not receive adequate blood supply. Without a fresh supply of oxygenated blood to the muscles, a person may feel tired and worn out by workouts that usually aren't challenging. Heart palpitations can also cause anxiety during exercise, scaring would-be joggers and bikers into ending their workouts early.
Dips and spikes in blood pressure due to atrial fibrillation can cause major bouts of dizziness or lightheadedness. These feelings can be unpleasant and may prevent a person from concentrating on their work or performing other necessary tasks. Feeling dizzy can also prevent a person from driving and is associated with an increased risk of falls, which can lead to serious injury, especially in older adults.
Heart failure happens when the heart does not pump enough blood to meet the whole body's needs. Untreated, AFib sometimes leads to heart failure because the increased heart rate and incomplete filling of the heart chambers mean the organ cannot fill with enough blood to pump efficiently through the body. Blood then pools in the veins leading from the lungs to the heart, causing fluid to back up into the lungs and resulting in shortness of breath, wheezing, gasping, and fatigue.
Chest pain is one of the more alarming symptoms associated with AFib. In some people, the rapid heart rate causes chest pain or angina because the heart's pumping issues cause less blood to flow to the heart muscle itself. Those who have other heart problems in addition to AFib are more likely to experience this symptom. Keep in mind that chest pain is often a serious symptom that needs immediate medical attention.
When the heart isn't pumping blood correctly, fluid can pool and gather in the feet, ankles, and legs. This may cause fluid retention and swelling that can become painful. Retention of fluid also causes weight gain and a swollen, puffy appearance that may make a person feel self-conscious or unhealthy.
Atrial fibrillation on its own can be unpleasant or alarming, but it doesn't always cause major medical issues. However, AFib that remains untreated over time can exacerbate or precede more serious issues, including stroke, heart failure, or inconsistent blood supply. It may even lead to other heart rhythm problems or chronic fatigue. People with atrial fibrillation are also at higher risk of developing stroke and heart failure.
There are many ways to help prevent AFib. Many of them are part of a healthy lifestyle, anyway, such as eating a healthy diet, exercising, reducing stress, not smoking, and maintaining an appropriate weight. Limiting caffeine and alcohol may also help. Be cautious with over-the-counter medications, since some contain stimulants that can set off an irregular heartbeat.
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