What is Atrial Fibrillation? Symptoms, Causes, And Risk Factors


Stethoscope
Highlights
  • Atrial fibrillation (AFib of AF) is a cardiac condition characterized by a chaotic and rapid heart rate, also known as arrhythmia.

  • Symptoms of this condition include heart palpitations, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

  • Atrial fibrillation can be caused by factors such as sleep disorders, lung diseases, thyroid conditions, and genetics.

  • Atrial fibrillation treatments involve blood-thinning medications, rhythm control drugs, and agents to decrease heart rate.

Atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF) can happen to anyone. However, it’s more likely to occur in those with existing heart conditions or other underlying health problems.

This is a dangerous condition as it can result in heart failure if the organ can’t pump blood efficiently. There’s also a heightened risk of strokes due to the formation of blood clots.

If you suspect you are experiencing atrial fibrillation, you must see a healthcare provider right away, as it could lead to serious complications.

In this article, we will explain what atrial fibrillation is, the symptoms patients may experience, and the common causes of this condition.

Atrial Fibrillation Explained

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm — called arrhythmia — that starts in the organ's upper chambers, known as the atria.

In this condition, the atria beat out of sync with the ventricles, which are the heart’s lower chambers.

AFib disrupts the heart's normal electrical impulse cycle, causing a rapid and irregular heart rate in those with the condition.

This disruption can also hinder the flow of blood from the atria to the heart's ventricles.

There are three types of AFib, namely:

  • Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (PAP): This irregular heartbeat typically resolves within a week without any treatment, with symptoms that are intermittent and last only a few minutes but can recur frequently.

  • Persistent atrial fibrillation (PersAfib): Persistent AFib lasts more than one week and requires treatment as the heart’s rhythm doesn’t reset on its own.

  • Long-standing persistent atrial fibrillation (LSPeAF/LSPAF): This type of AFib lasts more than a year and can pose treatment challenges. People may require medication or a procedure to restore a normal heart rhythm.

Having high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart failure alongside atrial fibrillation increases the risk of blood clots and stroke, which is a major complication of the condition.

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

For many people, atrial fibrillation doesn’t cause any symptoms. However, some people may experience one or more of the following:

Heart palpitations

Certain individuals with atrial fibrillation may experience a sensation of fluttering, racing, or pounding heartbeat. This is known as heart palpitations.

In atrial fibrillation, the electrical signals within the heart become erratic and disorganized, causing what feels like heart palpitations.

Chest pain

In atrial fibrillation, the atria don’t contract effectively, reducing the amount of blood that fills the ventricles. This can lower the amount of blood pumped into the body with each heartbeat.

This impaired blood flow decreases the oxygen level in the body’s tissues, including the heart muscle, which causes chest pain or discomfort.

Additionally, an increased and rapid heart rate can place a heavier demand on the heart muscle, which may lead to chest pain.

Dizziness and lightheadedness

The inconsistent blood flow and lower oxygen levels in the body can lead to feelings of unsteadiness or dizziness.

The erratic heart rhythm associated with this condition can result in blood pressure changes that cause people to feel dizzy or lightheaded.

Fatigue

The reduced oxygen levels in the tissues of the body due to AFib can cause tiredness and fatigue. The heart also has to work much harder, meaning it will use more of the body’s energy to pump blood, potentially leading to fatigue.

Shortness of breath

As less oxygen is delivered to the heart and lungs during AFib, individuals may experience shortness of breath, particularly during physical exertion.

Weakness

During AFib, the muscles and organs receive less oxygen and nutrients, which can make people feel physically weak.

The abnormal heart rhythm associated with the condition can result in inconsistent blood flow to the body’s tissues. This can cause periods of weakness – especially when doing physically demanding activities.

Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

The most common causes of atrial fibrillation include:

Congenital heart defects

Some people are born with a structural abnormality in the heart. This can impact the heart’s function and can interfere with the heart’s electrical system.

Sick sinus syndrome

Sick sinus syndrome (SSS) occurs when the heart’s natural pacemaker malfunctions – potentially causing rhythm problems – including AFib.

Sleep disorders

Obstructive sleep apnea can lead to low oxygen levels in the body and increased pressure on the heart. This is because the condition involves repetitive interruptions and restarts of breathing during sleep.

Heart attack

Having a heart attack can often affect the heart’s structure, function, and electrical system. A heart attack can also damage the heart muscles, making it unable to pump blood efficiently. These two factors can result in AFib.

Heart disease

Atrial fibrillation is more common in people who have some form of heart disease, including coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, and congenital heart defects. These conditions may interfere with the heart’s electrical system, increasing the likelihood of AFib.

High blood pressure

Known as hypertension, high blood pressure puts a strain on the heart. This can cause structural changes to the organ that disrupt the normal electrical activity in the heart and potentially cause atrial fibrillation.

Lung diseases

Lung conditions such as obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or pulmonary hypertension can increase the pressure in the pulmonary arteries and strain the right side of the heart. This stress can alter the structure of the heart, potentially leading to atrial fibrillation.

Thyroid disease

Having an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) can cause atrial fibrillation because the condition increases heart rate, resulting in an abnormal heartbeat.

Infections from viruses

Some viruses can cause heart inflammation, which could trigger a number of conditions, including atrial fibrillation.

Risk Factors for Atrial Fibrillation

Some people have a higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation. Common risk factors include:

Age

As you age, your heart changes. These changes may include fibrosis (scarring) of the heart tissue and degeneration of the cardiac conduction system. This results in an increased risk of heart conditions, such as atrial fibrillation.

Caffeine and nicotine

These substances are stimulants that activate the sympathetic nervous system. This can result in an increased heart rate and blood pressure and may cause heart rhythm disturbances such as atrial fibrillation.

Alcohol

Excessive alcohol consumption can directly affect the heart muscle and the electrical system. This can result in atrial fibrillation episodes.

Low body minerals

Having low levels of minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium in the body can alter the electrical activity of the heart and impact the heart muscle.

These minerals also help prevent the heart from being overstimulated. Insufficient levels of these minerals in the body can impede the heart's normal functioning.

Family history

If atrial fibrillation occurs in multiple family members, there may be a hereditary component to the condition. Genetics can affect the heart’s structure and electrical system, increasing the risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

High blood pressure

As mentioned earlier, people with high blood pressure are more at risk for developing atrial fibrillation. This is because increased blood pressure means the heart has to work harder and this can lead to structural changes, which can disrupt the normal electrical signaling in the atria.

Obesity

Excess body weight can result in functional and structural changes in the heart, such as increased atrial size and inflammation, all of which can contribute to atrial fibrillation.

Diabetes

When diabetes is not adequately controlled, it can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation. This is because unmanaged blood sugar can lead to inflammation in the heart and impair its function.

Treatments and Management for Atrial Fibrillation

The primary goals in treating atrial fibrillation are to manage the heart rate, restore a normal heart rhythm, and minimize the risk of stroke.

There are three common types of medications used to treat this condition. These include:

  • Blood thinners: Also known as anticoagulant medications, blood thinners like warfarin work to prevent blood clots in the body, helping to reduce the risk of a stroke.

  • Rhythm control medications: These medications help the heart to beat at a normal rhythm. Some examples are procainamide and disopyramide.

  • Rate control medications: These medications prevent the ventricles in the heart from beating too fast. Examples include verapamil or digoxin.

How to Prevent Atrial Fibrillation

There are certain lifestyle changes you can make to prevent the onset of atrial fibrillation:

  • Manage chronic conditions: Controlling high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol can reduce your risk of developing this condition.

  • Avoid smoking: This is a significant risk factor for many heart conditions, and quitting smoking can significantly reduce your chances of developing heart conditions.

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet: Try to reduce your sodium (salt) and saturated fat intake, while increasing your consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

  • Maintain healthy sleep habits: Poor sleep can increase the risk of heart conditions, including atrial fibrillation. Ensure that you get at least seven hours of sleep each night.

  • Stay hydrated: Adequate hydration can help the heart to function normally.

  • Manage stress: Chronic stress can lead to heart problems. Try stress management techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and counseling.

Where Can I Learn More About Atrial Fibrillation?

If you are concerned about your heart health, LifeMD can help.

Skip the waiting room and get a same-day appointment to speak to a healthcare professional. A team of medical professionals can prescribe appropriate treatments for managing your condition.

Make an appointment today to get started.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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