What is A-fib?

Learn about this common heart condition

Atrial fibrillation, also called A-fib, is a disease of the heart. It causes an irregular heartbeat, often faster than normal.

Between 3 and 6 million people in the U.S. have A-fib. Each year, around 350,000 people are admitted to hospitals for A-fib, and about 500,000 people are diagnosed.

“After turning 40, there is a one-in-four lifetime risk of developing A-fib,” said Kent E. Morris, M.D., electrophysiologist with Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Heart Rhythm Center. “The most common form of A-fib is the result of the top chambers of the heart beating irregularly, which causes the lower chambers of the heart to beat faster.”

Dr. Morris said you are more at risk for A-fib if you have a pre-existing heart condition, sleep apnea, diabetes or obesity.

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Some symptoms of A-fib include:

  • Palpitations (sensations of heart beating)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness

Dr. Morris points out that not all palpitations are A-fib, so don’t panic.

“The palpitations you are experiencing can be from normal activities, like walking up the stairs,” he said. “But it is important to talk to your provider about the symptoms you are experiencing, when those symptoms occur and when they subside. This will allow your provider to make a diagnosis or refer you to a heart specialist for follow-up.”

A-fib is diagnosed through an electrocardiogram (EKG) or echocardiogram (echo), both painless tests. If you have had heart palpitations recently, it is important to schedule an appointment with a cardiologist.

What do you need to know about A-fib?

Preventing A-fib may not be an option for everyone since heredity plays a role in many heart-related conditions. However, there are steps that can be taken to manage A-fib. Being diagnosed and under a medical provider’s care is first on the list. Then your provider will work with you to:

  • Manage your diabetes
  • Maintain a healthy weight or losing weight
  • Treat sleep apnea
  • Reduce your stress or find ways to manage your stress effectively
  • Exercise regularly, ideally 30 minutes per day
  • Get adequate sleep every night

A-fib can lead to deadly complications such as stroke or heart failure, so it’s important to get diagnosed and treated right away.

“There are plenty of treatment options available if it is A-fib, including altering your lifestyle to be more heart-healthy, medication and possibly surgery.”

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