Atrial fibrillation (AFib): What you need to know

This article was updated on 9/27/20 to reflect recent research.

AFib is a potentially serious health condition, but with effective treatment and healthy lifestyle changes, you can still live a full and active life.

  • If left untreated, AFib can significantly increase your risk for stroke.
  • Uncontrolled rapid heart rate can lead to heart failure.

[4 MIN READ]

Everyone experiences a racing heart from time to time — it's a familiar feeling when you're excited, scared or anxious. But when your heart starts pounding for no apparent reason, it could be a serious problem called atrial fibrillation (AFib).

AFib is an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) caused by disorganized electrical signals in the upper chambers of the heart. AFib may or may not cause symptoms.

As September marks AFib Awareness Month, it's important to take a health check and learn about the symptoms and potential side effects of this heart condition.

How does AFib affect my overall health?

With AFib, blood can stay stagnant and pool inside one of the upper heart chambers. When blood pools, clots can form. Eventually, that clot may be pumped out of the heart toward the brain where it can block an artery and cause a stroke.

Stroke is the greatest health risk for someone with AFib — in fact, someone with AFib is five times more likely to have a stroke than someone without it. Fortunately, there are many AFib treatments available today that can lower your risk for stroke and help you maintain a normal life.

Risk factors for AFib

If you have a family history of AFib, make sure to talk to your doctor and see if you have any potential risk factors. Recent research shows that people with a family history of AFib may be more likely to develop the condition or other serious cardiovascular problems. Other risk factors for developing AFib include:

  • Hypertension
  • Obesity
  • Sleep apnea
  • Valvular heart disease
  • Congestive heart failure

Drinking alcohol may also make someone more susceptible to AFib.

AFib and COVID-19

While AFib alone may not increase the risk for severe symptoms from COVID-19, other related heart conditions can. According to the American Heart Association, stroke survivors and people with heart disease, high blood pressure and congenital heart defects are more likely to develop complications from the virus.

I've been diagnosed with AFib: Now what?

While an AFib diagnosis can increase the risk for serious health problems, it doesn't mean you're sentenced to a sedentary life at home. A study published in BMJ this summer showed that the outlook for AFib patients has improved over the last 45 years. However, the study also underlined that AFib remains a severe health problem and individuals should take every step they can to prevent and treat the disease.

If you've been diagnosed with AFib, it's crucial to follow treatment from your doctor and reduce certain risk factors. With effective treatment and healthy lifestyle changes, you should be able to live a full and active life with AFib.

How to keep AFib in check

Once you're on a treatment plan for AFib, you should be able to go about your daily life as normal. As long as you're cleared by your doctor, you can continue to drive, exercise and go to work.

Living with AFib means undergoing treatment to help control your heart rate and reduce your risk for stroke. Treatment may also involve to restoring and maintaining normal heart rhythm, as well as avoiding certain triggers that may cause episodes of AFib.

Medicines for AFib

Depending on your condition, your doctor may prescribe different medicines for your AFib, including:

  • Blood thinners (anticoagulants)—These medicines will help reduce the risk for blood clots, which can cause a stroke.
  • Heart rate control medicines—These medicines lower the heart rate response to the AFib.
  • Heart rhythm control medicines—These medicines help keep your heart rhythm normal.

It's important to always take your medicines exactly as prescribed unless your doctor tells you to stop or change your treatment.

Other treatments for AFib

If medicines alone don't help control your irregular heartbeat, your doctor may recommend a procedure to treat the AFib. These treatments may include:

  • Electrical cardioversion—During this procedure, you will be sedated and your doctor will give you an electrical shock using patches or paddles on your chest. This shock may be able to return your heart to a normal rhythm.
  • Ablation—Your doctor inserts insulated wires (catheters) through blood vessels and up into your heart. The doctor then delivers heat or cold through the end of the catheter to eliminate the electrical signals causing the AFib. Once these abnormal signals stop, your heart may go back to its normal rhythm.
  • Pacemaker—In some cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to place a small device (pacemaker) in your heart if your heart rate is getting too slow.

Your doctor can assess whether you require surgery based on your health and individual needs.

Avoiding AFib triggers

In some cases, you may be able to prevent an episode of AFib by avoiding certain triggers that can cause irregular heartbeats. Some common triggers include:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Poor sleep or sleep apnea
  • Too much alcohol

Can my AFib be cured?

AFib is not curable, but by following your treatment plan, you will be able to lower your risk for stroke caused by AFib. With treatment, a heart-healthy lifestyle and regular check-ups with your doctor, you can live a long and full life with AFib.

Find a heart expert with Providence

If you're looking for expert heart care, Providence has nationally ranked cardiac specialists who provide compassionate and comprehensive treatment for a full range of heart conditions. Many of our hospitals have received "high performing" designations from U.S. News & World Report for cardiac procedures and conditions. A "high performing" ranking is one of the highest recognitions from U.S. News & World Report.

High performing hospitals for aortic valve surgery (AVR)

  • Providence St. Vincent Medical Center
  • Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children's Hospital
  • Swedish Medical Center – Cherry Hill
  • St. Patrick Hospital

High performing hospitals for heart bypass surgery

  • Providence St. Vincent Medical Center
  • Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children's Hospital
  • St. Joseph Hospital – Orange
  • St. Jude Medical Center
  • Providence St. Peter Hospital
  • Kadlec Regional Medical Center
  • Swedish Medical Center – Cherry Hill
  • Providence St. Joseph Medical Center – Burbank

High performing hospitals for congestive heart failure treatment

  • Providence St. Vincent Medical Center
  • Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children's Hospital
  • St. Joseph Hospital – Orange
  • Providence Regional Medical Center Everett
  • Swedish Medical Center – First Hill
  • Providence Portland Medical Center
  • St. Jude Medical Center
  • Providence Tarzana Medical Center
  • Providence St. Peter Hospital
  • Kadlec Regional Medical Center
  • Swedish Medical Center – Cherry Hill
  • Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center Torrance
  • Providence St. Joseph Medical Center – Burbank
  • Covenant Medical Center – Lubbock
  • Providence Alaska Medical Center
  • St. Joseph Hospital – Eureka

High performing hospitals for transaortic valve replacement (TAVR)

  • Providence St. Vincent Medical Center
  • Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children's Hospital
  • Swedish Medical Center – Cherry Hill

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Related Resources

Atrial fibrillation: What makes the heart skip a beat?

Should I take aspirin to prevent heart disease?

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About the Author

The Providence Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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