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Atrial Fibrillation

By Shannon Pierce

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, also known as “A-fib” is an abnormal heart rhythm characterized by rapid and irregular beating.  It is the most common serious abnormal heart rhythm. It tends to start as brief periods of abnormal beating which may become longer and possibly consistent and constant over time. During atrial fibrillation, the heart's two upper chambers, beat erratically and irregularly. The upper chambers do not coordinate with the lower two chambers of the heart, causing the disease.  Atrial fibrillation may increase the risk of heart failure, dementia, and stroke. 


Although many episodes do not have symptoms, some people may experience heart

palpitations, fainting, shortness of breath, or chest pain. The episodes can come and go, but atrial fibrillation that doesn't go away requires treatment. Atrial fibrillation alone is not usually life-threatening, but it is a serious medical condition that sometimes requires emergency treatment. Atrial fibrillation can lead to complications such as blood clots.


Atrial fibrillation is typically caused by abnormalities or damage to the heart's structure. Causes of atrial fibrillation may include:

  • Viral infections
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attacks
  • Sick sinus syndrome — improper functioning of the heart's natural pacemaker
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Congenital heart dfects
  • An overactive thyroid gland or other metabolic imbalance
  • Exposure to stimulants, such as medications, caffeine, tobacco or alcohol
  • Lung diseases
  • Previous heart surgery
  • Stress due to pneumonia, surgery or other illnesses
  • Sleep apnea


Doctors review signs and symptoms, medical history, and conduct a physical examination. They may order tests including:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Chest X-ray
  • Holter monitor
  • Event recorder
  • Echocardiogram
  • Blood test
  • Stress test


In order to treat atrial fibrillation, the heart rate and rhythm must reset to normal. Doctors may be able to reset your heart to its regular rhythm using a procedure called cardioversion. However, treatment always depends on the initial cause of atrial fibrillation and how long a patient has had it.

One form of cardioversion uses medications called anti-arrhythmics to help restore normal sinus rhythm. Doctors may recommend trying intravenous or oral medications to return your heart to normal rhythm.

In the second procedure, an electrical shock is delivered to the heart through paddles or patches placed on the chest. It temporarily stops the heart beat in order to hopefully have it return again at a normal rhythm. After these procedures doctors may prescribe anti-arrhythmic medications. There are also additional catheter and surgical procedures available today.

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