Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a type of tachycardia, or fast, irregular heart rhythm. AF affects about 2 million Americans. It is not usually life threatening. However, it can lead to stroke or heart muscle damage. People with AF are about five times more likely to have a stroke.
The heart beats between 300 and 600 times per minute during AF. The result is that the atria, or upper chambers of the heart, quiver and no longer pump efficiently. Some blood might stay in the atria with each heartbeat. The pooled blood can clot, increasing the risk of stroke.
High blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and other heart and lung conditions are associated with AF. Alcohol, stress, caffeine, severe infections, and some drugs may cause a normal heart to go into AF. Sometimes no underlying cause is found. The risk of AF seems to increase after age 60.
Symptoms of AF vary. Some people have palpitations, a sudden fluttering or pounding in the chest. Others feel dizzy, faint, or short of breath.
To diagnose atrial tachycardia, your doctor will typically use an electrocardiogram (ECG) test. This is a painless test using electrode patches on your skin. It shows how electrical signals travel through your heart and then prints them on paper. The printed pattern of your heartbeat indicates what kind of rhythm you have.
If you don’t have AF constantly, your doctor may have you wear a small monitor over several days in an effort to record an AF episode. Your doctor will explain what type of testing is best for you.
To treat AF doctors may prescribe medications, a pacemaker, cardioversion, surgery, or a combination of these therapies. Generally, treatment involves helping control your heart rate and reducing the risk of blood clots.
Blood thinners such as aspirin or warfarin are commonly prescribed. Antiarrhythmic medications that help control episodes of rapid heart rhythms are also available. Most of the medications work some of the time but not all of the time. For that reason, your doctor may try other medications if you continue to experience symptoms or unwanted side effects.
In many AF patients medications cannot control the arrhythmia or may cause serious side effects. A surgical procedure called the MAZE or a catheter ablation is sometimes considered for these patients.