Atrial fibrillation: What makes the heart skip a beat?

October 5, 2018 Providence Health Team

Atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia where the heart can't pump blood properly.

There are many causes, including heart problems, age, sleep apnea and obesity.

A study has indicated weight loss can improve atrial fibrillation and even restore normal heart rhythm.

Imagine one day, instead of the reliable thump-thump of your beating heart — so regular you take for granted that your heart is doing its job properly — you sense something else. A flutter, an erratic jump or a rapid skittering feeling. If it doesn't go away, this could be a sign that you are dealing with a certain type of heart arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation (AFib).

AFib is dangerous because it means your heart can't pump blood through to the rest of the body the way it is supposed to. That can put you at risk of heart failure or — if the blood pooling in your heart forms a clot — a stroke.

If you're a gadget aficionado, the new Apple Watch Series 4 has a built-in heart monitor that can detect AFib. But how does the heart go haywire this way in the first place?

Read and download our free Heart to Heart Patient Education Guide:

Heart to Heart Patient Education Guide

(Compiled and reviewed by the Regional Cardiac Education Committee, clinical staff and physicians in Providence Health & Services’ Portland Service Area)

Your heartbeat is governed by electrical signals that keep the upper and lower chambers of the heart in sync. If these signals get mixed while traveling through the heart's chambers, that can cause the irregular rhythm associated with AFib. That electrical malfunction can be triggered by any number of things, chief among them preexisting heart issues such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart defects or valve abnormalities, as well as heart attacks or cardiac surgeries.

There are other causes not related directly to the heart. Your metabolism can play a role in AFib, such as with hyperthyroidism. Sleep apnea, in which breathing is interrupted while you are asleep, may also be a contributing factor. Stress and sickness, such as a viral infection, can also trigger atrial fibrillation, and there's a greater risk as you age or if you have a family history.

Even something as simple as consuming caffeine or alcohol has been associated with AFib. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen experienced irregular heartbeat due to AFib when he traveled to Denver for an August 2018 game against the Colorado Rockies. The episode is thought to be linked to the high altitude of the Rockies’ Denver stadium.

While people with persistent AFib may have to take medication or receive electrical cardioversion to restore their heart rate, there has been promising developments in research regarding patients with a particular risk factor: obesity. In a recent study, obese patients who lost at least 10 percent of their body weight saw improvement with their AFib. In fact, more than half of them had their normal heart rate restored without the need for medication or treatment. Another benefit is that eating a nutritious diet to lose weight is also good for your heart, which can help ameliorate cardiac-related causes of AFib.

If you are concerned about your heart health, or you are experiencing symptoms of AFib such as heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, or fatigue or weakness that prevents you from your normal activities, find a health care provider today with our online physician directory.

Washington: Providence Heart & VascularProvidence Spokane Heart InstituteSwedish Heart & Vascular InstituteKadlec Regional Medical Center

Oregon: Providence Heart & Vascular Institute

Alaska: Providence Heart & Vascular Center

California: Providence Saint John’s Health Center;  Little Company of Mary Medical Center TorranceProvidence Saint Joseph Medical Center; St. Joseph Hospital Heart and Vascular Center; Heart Institute at St. Joseph Hospital - Humboldt

Montana: International Heart Institute

The International Heart Institute of Montana now offers a new form of treatment for AFib - the Watchman device. Dr. Simone Musco explains:

Recommended for you:

What you need to know about the new stroke guidelines

How to be heart healthy at any age

Guard your heart: How to prevent, survive and recover from a heart attack


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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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