Here’s what AFib is doing to your ticker.
An occasionally skipped beat is no biggie for the heart, but some abnormal heartbeats can cause the muscle to pump blood less effectively and can be life-threatening.
The most common kind of irregular heartbeat is called atrial fibrillation, and it affects at least 2.7 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association. Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, causes abnormal, fluttering beats that can lead to stroke, blood clots, or heart failure.
AFib is caused by faulty electric impulses starting from the top right chamber of the heart, the right atrium. The sinoatrial node in this atrium normally initiates this impulse, which causes the rest of the heart to contract. But with AFib, the electric impulses are disorganized and occur throughout the two atriums.
“Because those impulses are coming from all different places, instead of contracting in one big pump, the heart actually fibrillates; it shakes,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center.
Risk factors for AFib include:
High blood pressure
Previous heart attack
Excess alcohol intake
You may not experience any symptoms with atrial fibrillation, but those who do have symptoms report having palpitations (which feels like a fluttering in the heart), shortness of breath, chest discomfort, or lightheadedness.
Because not all patients experience symptoms of AFib, many people do not even realize that they have it. That could be dangerous since AFib increases your risk of stroke by four to six times, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, as well as heart failure and other heart-related problems. (Learn more about preventing and treating a stroke here.)
“If you have any symptoms that don’t feel right, you should always go and tell your doctor,” says Dr. Bloom, “because it’s very, very important for us to know if a patient is in atrial fibrillation, and you might not always know that yourself.”
Dr. Bond is a cardiologist and associate director of the Women's Heart Health Program at Northwell Health, Lenox Hill Hospital and an assistant professor of cardiology at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine.Nieca Goldberg
Dr. Goldberg is a cardiologist and medical director of the NYU Langone Health Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health.Michelle Weisfelner Bloom
Dr. Bloom is an associate professor of medicine at Stony Brook University Medical Center, a fellow of the American College of Cardiology, and a fellow of the Heart Failure Society of America.
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Atrial fibrillation is an irregularity
in the rate or rhythm of the heart.
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That means that the heart is moving
erratically in the top chamber of
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is a type of arrhythmia.
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Arrhythmia is a general term and there
are different types of arrhythmias and
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atrial fibrillation is just one of them.
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And it's probably one of the most common
arrhythmias in people over the age of 65.
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So we have four chambers or
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rooms in the heart.
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The top two chambers are called the atria,
the right atrium and the left atrium.
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And the bottom two chambers, or
the main pumping chambers of the heart,
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are the right ventricle and
the left ventricle.
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In the right atrium, there's a group
of cells called the sinoatrial node and
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that's where the normal
conduction system starts.
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And when that impulse has reached
all the cells in the heart,
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that signifies the heart to pump,
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What happens with atrial fibrillation
is those impulses can start from
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anywhere at the top of the heart.
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Because those impulses are coming from all
different places instead of contracting
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in one big pump,
the heart actually fibrillates.
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It shakes, and that's why it's
called atrial fibrillation.
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So having high blood pressure,
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a previous heart attack,
a previous stroke, heart failure,
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thyroid disease are all things
that can increase your risk for
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Other risk factors include any
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evidence of structural heart disease,
meaning if you have a valve condition.
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If you have an excess
amount of alcohol intake.
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Also sleep apnea can put you at
a heightened risk of atrial fibrillation.
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Obesity can also cause
atrial fibrillation as well.
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Some patients may not experience symptoms
when they have atrial fibrillation.
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But if your heart rate is very rapid,
you may experience symptoms and
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the more common symptoms are palpitations.
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Meaning your heart feels like it's racing.
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You may also experience
shortness of breath.
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You may have chest discomfort or
you may feel lightheaded.
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Atrial fibrillation typically is first
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diagnosed by an electrocardiogram or
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We put the leads on to your
chest right above your heart and
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we can actually see the heart rythm.
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So it's very common and
thousands of people have it and
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may not even know they have it.
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Being in the rhythm of atrial fibrillation
can put you at a risk of a stroke
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is what makes it really dangerous.
Because this irregular beating of
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the heart allows blood to pool
in the left upper chamber.
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And when the blood pools,
that increases risk for blood clots.
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Those blood clots then
travel to the brain and
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that's what causes the stroke.
If you have any symptoms that don't
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feel right, you should always go and
tell your doctor because it's very,
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very important for us to know if
a patient is in atrial fibrillation.
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And you might not always
know that yourself.
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About arrhythmia. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2016. (Accessed on December 12, 2017 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/AboutArrhythmia/About-Arrhythmia_UCM_002010_Article.jsp#.WjAVnEqnEdU.)Arrhythmia. Washington, DC: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on December 12, 2017 at https://medlineplus.gov/arrhythmia.html.) Atrial fibrillation. Washington, DC: U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on December 30, 2020 at https://medlineplus.gov/atrialfibrillation.html.) Atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib). Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2017. (Accessed on December 12, 2017 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/AboutArrhythmia/Atrial-Fibrillation-AF-or-AFib_UCM_302027_Article.jsp#.WjAVw0qnEdU.) Atrial fibrillation and stroke information page. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (Accessed on December 30, 2020 at https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Atrial-Fibrillation-and-Stroke-Information-Page.) Symptoms, diagnosis, & monitoring of arrhythmia. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2016. (Accessed on December 12, 2017 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/SymptomsDiagnosisMonitoringofArrhythmia/Symptoms-Diagnosis-Monitoring-of-Arrhythmia_UCM_002025_Article.jsp#.WjAUjEqnEdU.) What is atrial fibrillation? Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2016. (Accessed on December 30,2020 at https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/atrial-fibrillation/what-is-atrial-fibrillation-afib-or-af.)