Atrial Fibrillation FAQs
Atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF) is one of the most common arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat). It affects nearly six million Americans. Knowing the basics about AFib and what to look for can help prevent the progression of the disease.
What is AFib?
AFib is an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia) that starts in the upper chambers (atria) of the heart. People with AFib develop an abnormal, rapid heartbeat when the upper chambers beat out of sync with the lower chambers (ventricles). This makes it harder for the heart to pump blood efficiently throughout the body.
Types of AFib
There are three main types of AFib.
Paroxysmal AFib lasts less than one week and usually stops on its own without treatment.
Persistent AFib lasts more than one week and needs treatment.
Long-standing persistent AFib lasts more than a year and is sometimes difficult to treat.
What causes AFib?
There is no one cause of AFib, but there are several risk factors and preexisting conditions that make AFib more common. The most common cause of AFib is advanced age.
Other risk factors include:
High blood pressure
People with specific existing conditions, like heart attacks, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathy are at an increased risk of developing AFib.
What does AFib feel like?
Patients with AFib often describe a fluttering, or butterflies, in their chest when their heart beats. Your heart might beat faster than normal, pound, or race. Sometime your heart may skip beats. The feeling usually lasts for a few minutes but could last for hours or days.
Is AFib hereditary?
AFib often runs in families. If a family member has AFib, you have a higher chance of developing it, too.
What is a dangerous heart rate with AFib?
A dangerous heart rate with AFib depends on several factors, including your overall health and any existing medical conditions.
In general, a normal resting heart rate should be between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm). In AFib, your heart may beat over 140 bpm.
AFib vs. atrial flutter
AFib and atrial flutter are both types of arrhythmias and have similar symptoms, including irregular rapid heart rate and irregular pulse. While both affect the upper chambers and result in an irregular heartbeat, these are two different conditions.
In AFib, the atria beat irregularly, but in atrial flutter, the atria beat regularly but faster than usual and more often than the ventricles.
Atrial flutter is less common than AFib, but has many similar symptoms. Both conditions increase your risk of stroke and should be treated by a cardiologist.
How is AFib diagnosed?
To diagnose AFib, your provider will start by gathering your health history, family history, and symptoms you’ve noticed related to AFib. You will then have a physical exam to give a baseline of your health. This often includes:
Listening to your heart rhythm with a stethoscope
Checking your pulse and blood pressure
Checking the size of your thyroid gland for thyroid problems
Looking for swelling in your feet or legs to identify heart failure
Listening to your lungs for heart failure or an infection
Your provider may also run some tests to help make a diagnosis. These tests include:
Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG)
You may be asked to wear a Holter monitor or a portable event monitor to record your heart’s activity to check how your heart works in your daily life.
What are the symptoms of AFib?
Heart palpitations are the most common symptom of AFib. Other symptoms include:
Chest pain (angina)
Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, keep a list of when they happen and share them with your health care provider.
Is AFib dangerous?
The severity of AFib can vary greatly case to case. In general, AFib itself is not considered a medical emergency, but it can lead to serious problems if not treated. In some cases, immediate medical intervention may be necessary. You should see a doctor as soon as possible no matter how mild your AFib symptoms are.
Can AFib be cured?
AFib cannot be cured but can be successfully treated and managed in many situations. If the underlying cause of AFib episodes are treated, the condition may never return. It’s possible to experience ongoing symptoms related to AFib or for the symptoms to end on their own.
All AFib patients should maintain regular checkups with their cardiologist.