Doctor checking patient's heart

It’s not unusual to experience an occasional heart palpitation — that feeling of your heart racing or fluttering. Sometimes it’s a response to stress or a scare. But for some people, it’s a sign of a heart condition called atrial fibrillation (Afib).

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What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia). It affects about 3 to 6 million people in the United States.

Madhurmeet Singh, DO, a cardiologist at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute at UPMC Hamot, describes the heart as a pump that works on a timer. Your heart rate is the timer, and a normal heart rate is between 60 and 80 beats per minute. Your heart rate increases when you exercise and slows when you rest, which allows the heart to pump the appropriate amount of blood needed for your activity level.

When you have Afib, your resting heart rate is significantly higher. That causes your heart to work a lot harder than it needs to. With Afib, you’re at higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Who Does Atrial Fibrillation Affect?

Age is a risk factor for this condition. Afib is most common in people over age 60, with the median age being 71. According to Dr. Singh, more people in their 50s and 60s are now presenting with Afib. This may be because doctors have gotten better at detecting it.

Your lifestyle also can increase your risk of developing atrial fibrillation. Smoking, heavy drinking, and ongoing stress along with high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity all can cause an abnormal heart rhythm. You’re at higher risk of having a stroke from Afib if you’re a woman or previously had a heart attack or stroke.

Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms

The main symptom is a feeling like your heart is fluttering in your chest. Other symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Fatigue or excessive tiredness.
  • Heart racing when sitting still.
  • Shortness of breath.

Dr. Singh also notes that some people have no symptoms at all. Without treatment, Afib can lead to stroke or heart attack. It’s important to call your doctor at the first sign of symptoms.

Atrial Fibrillation Treatment

With early intervention, you and your doctor may be able to reduce your risk for stroke, blood, clots, and other heart-related complications due to Afib.

“It’s actually a very treatable condition,” said Dr. Singh. “There are many causes of atrial fibrillation, so the first thing we look for is an obvious reversible cause.”

Some conditions that can cause Afib include:

  • Blood clot(s) in the lung.
  • Heart disease.
  • Infections.
  • Overactive thyroid.
  • Sleep apnea.

In many cases, doctors don’t find an underlying cause and may recommend medical or surgical treatment. Some options work temporarily, while others last longer.

Medicines can slow your heart rate or reduce the risk of clots. Cardioversion uses electricity to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm, but the irregular heart rate may return. Implanted devices, such as a pacemaker or WatchmanTM , are more invasive but maintain a normal heart rate for many years.

A procedure called ablation corrects a problem with the heart’s structure. This minimally invasive procedure uses a catheter to access the heart through a vein in your leg to destroy tissue that is causing the abnormal heart rhythm.

“If done early, ablation is a very effective therapy,” Dr. Singh said. “Eighty percent of people do very well with ablation to keep their heart in rhythm.”

Getting treatment early is critical to reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke, which can be deadly. If you think you may have Afib, talk to your doctor. He or she may refer you to the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, a recognized leader in cardiovascular care and home to the UPMC Center for Atrial Fibrillation, the first center in western Pennsylvania established to further the study and treatment of Afib.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.