What Is Atrial Fibrillation: The Ultimate Guide To Afib
Maybe you’ve recently been told by your doctor that you have a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, or Afib for short. Or maybe you have a loved one that’s recently been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.
Either way, hearing that you have any condition related to your heart can be very scary. But there is good news. Atrial fibrillation is a very common heart condition that is rarely life threatening. As a matter of fact, many people that you see every day live with afib.
The purpose of this post is to help you become more informed of what afib is, and how you can manage afib and continue to live a healthy and active life.
What Is Atrial Fibrillation (Afib)?
Simply put, afib is when there is a problem with the speed and pattern of your heart beat. Afib can come and go in episodes. These episodes are periods when your heart beats in a fast and irregular rhythm. Episodes of atrial fibrillation can cause symptoms, while other people may not experience symptoms at all.
Symptoms of Afib
Some of the symptoms associated with Afib are:
- irregular heart beat thats fast and pounding
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness, lightheaded or even fainting
- Chest pain
Who’s At Risk Of Afib?
People are more likely to get atrial fibrillation as they get older. There are other things that can also increase a persons risk for getting atrial fibrillation. Some of these include:
- Other heart conditions such as heart valve disease and coronary artery disease.
- High blood pressure
- Other health issues like diabetes, lung disease, thyroid problems and sleep apnea
- A history of heart surgery
- Heavy alcohol consumption
Atrial Fibrillation And Your Heart Beat
To understand what atrial fibrillation is and how it affects your heart and your health, you first need to understand how the heart works.
How Does The Heart Work?
The heart pumps to move blood through the heart and out to the body. To do this, chambers in the heart squeeze and relax. These actions create a heartbeat. The number of beats per minute is called the heart rate. The pattern of the heartbeats is called the heart rhythm. An arrhythmia is when there is a problem with the heart’s rate, rhythm or both. Atrial Fibrillation is one of many types of arrhythmia.
Electrical Signals Are What Tell The Heart To Beat
Each heartbeat starts with an electrical signal. These electrical signals are sent and received by special cells in the heart called nodes. As these electrical signals, or impulses, move through the heart muscle, they tell the heart’s chambers when to contract.
When you’re active and exerting yourself physically, the electrical signals speed up which in turn makes your heart beat faster. This increase in heart rate causes the heart to send more blood to the body.
When you’re at rest, the electrical signals slow down again.
What Happens During Atrial Fibrillation?
During atrial fibrillation, the top chambers of the heart, the atria, receive abnormal electrical signals. These signals travel from the atria to the AV node and to the ventricles. The abnormal electrical signals cause the heart to contract in a fast and irregular manner.
When the chambers beat too fast and out of sync, they have a difficult time pumping blood. Blood may end up pooling in the atria, which can increase the risk of blood clots and stroke. Also, less blood than normal may end up being pumped to the body. This lack of blood being pumped can lead to other symptoms and other health problems.
How Fast Is My Heart In Afib?
The atria may reach as much as up to 300 to 600 bpm. However, you don’t usually feel that. What you might feel are the ventricles, which can beat up to 150 beats per minute or even higher.
Why Is My Heart Rhythm Abnormal With Afib?
The difference in the rates between the chambers means they are out of sync. This causes heartbeats to have an irregular pattern.
What is Atrial Flutter?
Atrial flutter is also a type of heart arrhythmia. Atrial flutter can happen all by itself or it can happen with atrial fibrillation. With atrial flutter, the abnormal electrical impulses get stuck in a “loop” in the atria, which causes the atria to contract too quickly. The result of this is a fast and steady heartbeat.
Atrial flutter can cause symptoms that are very similar to Afib, which can make it easy to confuse the two for each other. Like Afib, atrial flutter increases the risk for stroke. Treatment for atrial flutter is similar to treatment for Afib.
How Do You Get Tested For Afib?
Chances are you’ve already had an evaluation done that included a health history and a physical examination. Next, the physician may ask you to undergo one or more additional tests. These exams will take a closer look at your heart rhythm and help you and your doctor come up with a game plan.
An electrocardiogram, or and ECG, is a quick and easy way to record the electrical activity of the heart. In an electrocardiogram, a technician will place small pads, or electrodes, on your chest, shoulders and arms. Wires will then be attached to these electrodes.
A machine will then print out a strip or a sheet of paper showing the pattern of your heart rhythm. If you’re afib comes and goes (paroxysmal Afib), then the EKG will not detect it unless you’re having an episode at that very moment.
Wearable Heart Monitors
To help diagnose paroxysmal Afib (Afib that comes and goes), your doctor may ask you to wear a portable heart monitor on your body. Only a few electrodes and wires are connected to you and you may have to wear the heart monitor on your belt or carry it in your pocket.
The heart monitor records the heart activity for a much longer period of time compared to an ECG. Some can even detect abnormal heart activity while you sleep.
Once the heart monitor is done, the data form the monitor is analyzed by a healthcare professional and the results are given to your doctor.
Types Of Heart Monitors
There are several different kinds of wearable heart monitors. A couple of the more common types of monitors are:
An Event Monitor
An event monitor can be worn for up to several weeks or even a month. One kind of event monitor is a loop recorder which records heart activity constantly. This type of heart monitor will only store the recording though if you push a button after experiencing symptoms. Another type of event monitor only turns on during and arrhythmia episode.
A Holter Monitor
A holter monitor can be worn for usually 24 hours up to several days. Holter monitors provide a constant recording of the heart.
Other Tests For Afib
An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of your heart. An echo uses sound waves to create a moving picture of the heart. An echo shows the size and shape of the heart. They also show how well heart chambers and valves are working.
A transesophageal echocardiogram, or TEE, is a special type of echo. A TEE images your heart much like a regular echocardiogram, but from the inside of your chest. During a TEE, a tube with and ultrasound transducer is put down your throat, and shows much more detail of your heart than a regular echo. With Afib, a TEE is usually done to check for blood clots that may have formed in your heart from the Atrial fibrillation.
Blood tests can check for problems such as overactive thyroid which can increase your risk for atrial fibrillation.
Other Heart Tests
There are other heart tests that can check and see how well your heart works. These tests might include stress tests or nuclear imaging.
Medications For Afib
There are drugs used to treat Afib that can help reduce the number and length of episodes of atrial fibrillation. These Afib medications do this by controlling the rate or rhythm of the heart beat. If you have atrial fibrillation, talk to your healthcare provider about medications for Afib.
Controlling The Hearts Rate With Medications For Afib
Most of the people that suffer from atrial fibrillation need to control their heart rate with afib medications. By controlling the heart rate, it allows the chambers to fill with more blood before they contract.
As a result of controlling the heart rate, the ventricles will pump more blood to the rest of the body. By doing this, symptoms of Afib can significantly be relieved. And as such, most people with Afib can live comfortably with their heart rate under control, even if the rhythm is still abnormal.
Medications for Afib that help control heart rate include:
- Beta-blockers, such as metoprolol, atenolol, carvedilol, nadolol and bisoprolol.
- Calcium channel blockers such as diltiazem and verapamil.
How Are Drugs Used To Treat Afib And Control Heart Rate Given?
Drugs that treat Afib and that control heart rate are usually taken every day. Your healthcare provider will prescribe the Afib medication if they think it can help you. You may end up taking one Afib medicaiton or a combination of drugs that treat Afib.
Controlling The Heart’s Rhythm With Medications For Afib
Drugs used to treat Afib that specifically control heart rhythm can also be given. These Afib medications help maintain a regular heart rhythm. Like rate control Afib medication, rhythm control helps the heart pump in a more efficient way. These Afib medications can help reduce Afib symptoms. Some rhythm control medicaitons for Afib include: