What Is AFib?

What you need to know about this heart condition that increases your risk of stroke and heart failure.

Atrial fibrillation, often referred to as AFib, is a condition in which the upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly, quickly and chaotically, resulting in an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).

Individuals with atrial fibrillation are at risk for serious complications including stroke and heart failure. Stroke can occur because the irregular heart rhythm causes blood to pool in the heart’s chambers and this may result in the formation of clots. These clots can dislodge and block blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke, or they can block blood flow to other organs. Additionally, the presence of AFib weakens the heart which can lead to heart failure. When this occurs, it makes it difficult for the heart to circulate enough blood to meet the body’s needs. 

Symptoms

Symptoms of AFib may only occur occasionally or persistently, depending on the severity of the condition. In some cases, a person with AFib does not experience any symptoms and the condition is only discovered during a physical examination.

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation may include:

  • heart palpitations (the feeling of a racing or fluttery heartbeat)
  • shortness of breath
  • weakness or fatigue
  • feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • chest pain

Causes

Heart structure abnormalities or heart damage are the most common causes of atrial fibrillation. The condition may result from:

  • congenital heart defects
  • abnormal heart valves
  • coronary artery disease
  • high blood pressure
  • previous heart surgery or heart attack
  • a problem with the heart’s natural pacemaker (sick sinus syndrome)
  • lung diseases
  • sleep apnea
  • a metabolic imbalance

A person’s risk for developing AFib increases due to the factors above, as well as advanced age, family history, obesity and alcohol consumption.

Prevention

The risk of developing atrial fibrillation and its associated complications may be reduced by adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as:

  • increasing physical activity
  • eating a healthy diet
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • quitting smoking
  • limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine
  • reducing stress
  • using over-the-counter medications only as needed

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Date Last Reviewed: January 17, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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