Atrial fibrillation (AF) is one of a number of disorders commonly referred to as 'arrhythmias', in which the heart does not beat with a normal rhythm.
AF is caused by a disturbance of the heart's own electrical system. The problem starts in the upper chambers of the heart (the atria), and causes these chambers to quiver (or 'fibrillate'), rather than beat normally. This can mean that the heart is not pumping as efficiently as it should be.
Who does AF affect?
Atrial fibrillation is one of the most common types of arrhythmia, occurring in about two per cent of the general population. It is particularly common in older people, affecting approximately 1 in 10 people over the age of 75.
Why is it important to recognize and treat AF?
Atrial fibrillation can cause symptoms such as a 'fluttering' heart beat, an irregular pulse, weakness and dizziness. In addition, AF increases a person's risk of problems caused by blood clots that can form within the atria when they aren't beating properly. Once a blood clot has formed, all or part of it may then break away and travel through the blood stream until it blocks a small artery, potentially cutting off the blood supply to one of the important organs of the body. If this happens in one of the blood vessels supplying the brain, it can cause a stroke.
Treatment for AF
The best course of treatment for a person with AF will depend on:
* the severity of symptoms.
* the cause (if known).
* the duration of the problem.
* that person's risk of stroke and other problems caused by blood clots blocking the flow of blood to vital organs of the body.
* the risks associated with each treatment option for that person.
Available treatments include medications or procedures to return the heart rhythm to normal (cardioversion) and long term medications to maintain normal heart rhythm, slow the heart rate and/or thin the blood.
In rare cases, surgical procedures may also be used to try to normalize the heart rhythm.
Aileen Norgell, MD is a Board Certified primary care physician in Orlando, Florida.