During atrial fibrillation (AFib), the heart’s electrical system sends out chaotic electrical impulses. This causes the top chambers of the heart (atria) to beat rapidly. These signals are sent to the bottom chambers (ventricles), causing an irregular and often fast heartbeat.
Atrial fibrillation can cause symptoms like heart palpitations, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, fatigue/weakness, and dizziness/lightheadedness.
AFib itself is usually not life-threatening, and most people are able to live a normal life. However, it can lead to decreased quality of life and serious complications including a weakened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) and stroke.
Atrial Fibrillation Risk Factors
Age is the leading risk factor for atrial fibrillation.
Other risk factors include:
- Congestive heart failure
- Heart valve problems
- High blood pressure
- Prior heart attack
- Sleep apnea
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Treatment Options for Atrial Fibrillation
Although AFib can cause health complications, there are many treatment options available that are individualized to the patient.
These treatment options include:
- Medication: Doctors can prescribe medicine to prevent and treat blood clots, control heart rate, and control heart rhythm. These medications can be used in combination with other treatments.
- Blood thinners: These medicines can prevent or treat blood clots, which if left untreated can cause strokes. Examples include warfarin and anticoagulants, like apixaban. However, blood thinners can cause side effects, including an increased risk of bleeding.
- Heart rate-controlling: Beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and digoxin can help control or slow the heart rate of someone with AFib.
- Heart rhythm-controlling: Sodium channel blockers and potassium channel blockers can treat the abnormal heart rhythm that leads to AFib, restoring it to normal.
- Electrical cardioversion: In this procedure, doctors use a machine to deliver low-voltage electric current to restore a heart’s normal rhythm. They deliver the electric current through patches applied to your skin. The machine will jolt the heart in hopes of restoring normal rhythm. Cardioversion can be done as a scheduled procedure or in emergency settings. You likely will receive blood thinners to prevent clots and other medications to lessen side effects.
- Catheter ablation: This minimally invasive procedure attempts to isolate the tiny parts of the heart that are firing abnormal electrical impulses and causing AFib. Doctors insert thin wires called catheters through a vein up into the heart. Electrodes at the end of the wire deliver heat, which can destroy the tissue causing the AFib.
- Surgery: Surgical ablation – also referred to as the maze procedure – is another option for treating AFib. Surgeons create scar tissue with small incisions, radio waves, freezing, or microwave or ultrasound energy. The scar tissue blocks the abnormal electrical signals that cause AFib.
- Left atrial appendage closure: This procedure is used to lower the risk of stroke in someone with AFib. A device known as the WATCHMAN™ is implanted into your heart. The WATCHMAN closes off the left atrial appendage, the part of the heart that most commonly forms stroke-causing clots. The WATCHMAN is used for people who may not be a candidate for blood thinners.
- Implanted devices: A device like a pacemaker or an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) can be put in your heart. These devices monitor your heart’s rhythm. If they detect abnormal rhythm, they deliver an electric shock to restore normal rhythm.
Navigating Life With Atrial Fibrillation
Lifestyle changes can also make a significant difference in those living with AFib.
Here are some tips for maintaining a healthy lifestyle while living with atrial fibrillation:
- Achieve a healthy weight. It may not be easy, but weight loss/maintaining an ideal body weight has been correlated to decreased episodes of atrial fibrillation. It also can increase effectiveness of treatment options and may prevent or improve other health conditions, like high blood pressure and diabetes.
- Exercise: As always, speak with your doctor prior to starting any new workout program. Most light cardio exercises (e.g. walking, swimming, biking) are beneficial to your heart health.
- Dietary changes: Small changes to your diet can make a significant difference. Swap burgers for lean protein, white flour for whole grains, and sugar-filled desserts for fresh fruit. Reducing intake of sugar, saturated fat, trans fats, and salt may improve or prevent other health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
- Decrease caffeine intake. Caffeine is a stimulant that may make your heart race and can be a trigger for AFib in some patients. Limiting caffeine intake is important. Look for caffeine sources in your diet that can be decreased or eliminated, including coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate.
- Limit alcohol intake. Regular, moderate-to-heavy consumption of alcohol, including binge drinking, can contribute to AFib. Additionally, significant alcohol consumption has been attributed to other health problems, including high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and weakened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy). It is important to be honest with your health care provider about your daily or weekly intake of alcohol.
- Improve your sleeping habits. Undiagnosed or untreated sleep apnea may trigger AFib and make treatment options less effective. A sleep study is often recommended in patients with AFib. If you don’t feel rested in the morning or have excessive daytime sleepiness, make an appointment with your health care provider. Your mind and body function better when you get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.
- Manage stress. Increased stress can be a trigger for AFib. Although it may be impossible to eliminate stress from daily life, it can be managed more effectively. Walking, gentle yoga, deep breathing, and meditation are all ways to help decrease stress and anxiety.
To make an appointment with a specialist at the UPMC Center for Atrial Fibrillation, call 1-844-HVI-AFIB (1-844-484-2342) or email CenterforAFib@upmc.edu.
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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.