Atrial fibrillation is the term used to describe a special case of the heart, beating with an irregular or abnormal rhythm. Irregularities in the heart beat are generally termed as arrhythmia. It can refer to a situation in which the heart beats too slow, too fast or with an abnormal rhythm. Atrial Fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia. It is so called because of the fact that there is a fibrillating or twitching movement of the heart muscles as opposed to their normal coordinated contractions during a heartbeat.
What Causes Atrial Fibrillation?
The heart beats by means of an electrical system. Atrial Fibrillation is caused when there arises some abnormality in the conduction of the electrical signals travelling through the heart causing them to become rapid and irregular. This is a consequence of the damage in the electrical conducting system caused by conditions such as Coronary Artery Disease or High Blood Pressure. These unsystematic electrical signals cause the two upper chambers of the heart, the atria, to contract very fast and erratically or to “fibrillate”. As a result, the blood accumulates in the atria and is not completely pumped into the ventricles, the lower chambers of the heart. Thus the coordination between the atria and the ventricles is disrupted.
Atrial Fibrillation is also known to occur in patients without any other indication of a heart disease. This is more frequent in younger people and this condition is referred to as lone atrial fibrillation. Various other causes for Atrial fibrillation include hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid, alcohol use, pulmonary embolism which refers to a blockage in the main artery of the lung, pneumonia, left ventricular hypertrophy or an enlargement of the ventricular walls, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, myocardial infarction, age etc.
What are the symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?
The symptoms associated with Atrial Fibrillation are as follows:
- Palpitations or rapid, irregular heart beats.
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Atrial Fibrillation is estimated to affect almost 2.2 million people in the United States. It affects both men and women. The risk increases with age and according to the statistics, one in four individuals who are aged 40 years or older, will develop Atrial Fibrillation during their lifetime. It is common in people who have diseases such as coronary heart disease, rheumatic heart disease,pericarditis etc. People who are obese or have high blood pressure also have a high risk factor.
Atrial Fibrillation can be potentially lethal if left untreated as it leads to consequences like stroke which may further lead to permanent brain damage. The risk of stroke increases with age and if proper anticoagulation therapy is not initiated by means of blood thinners like warfarin, stroke may affect 1.3 percent of people suffering from AF who are 50-59 years old.
How is Atrial Fibrillation Diagnosed?
In some cases patients having Atrial Fibrillation do not experience any direct symptoms suggestive of it. Therefore the condition is diagnosed following a physical examination or an electrocardiogram test in most cases. The doctors may also check the patients’ medical history and family histories.