What is it?
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a heart condition what causes rapid and irregular heart rate. This type of condition descends from the atria which are the two top chambers of your heart. Electrical impulses from inside your heart are sent off and tell your heart when to contract and pump blood, but if you have atrial fibrillation, the electrical messages can get mixed up and disorganised which in the end cause an irregular heart rate.
Symptoms and causes
Some people may not experience any symptoms and irregular heat rates are usually picked up during routine investigations or tests for other conditions.
This condition affects mainly older adults and can have associated symptoms such as:
Shortness of breath
Dizziness or feeling faint
Heart palpitations are the main symptom for atrial fibrillation which can feel quite uncomfortable like pounding or fluttering for a couple of seconds or minutes. Your heart may feel like its beating really fast and sometimes atrial fibrillation can make your heart beat way over 100 beats per minute!
Some of the causes for this heart condition do include high blood pressure, heart valve disease, atherosclerosis and pericarditis.
You may also be at risk if you smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs excessively.
Sometimes, once the cause for the condition is treated then atrial fibrillation may be resolved.
Diagnosis and treatment
If you are worried or curious of atrial fibrillation you can check your heartbeat yourself. We do recommend asking your doctor to check your heartbeat too but here is a quick tutorial on how to check your pulse
Sit down for a couple of minutes and do not eat or drink.
Hold your left arm out with your elbow slightly bent and your palm facing up.
Place your index and middle finger on your wrist, just below your thumb.
Count the number of beats for 30 seconds and then double that number to get your beats per minute
A normal heart rate is around 60-100 beats per minute.
Your doctor will need to perform a test to properly diagnose atrial fibrillation. The main test will be an electrocardiogram, this test is performed by your doctor attaching sensors to your skin which detect electrical signals each time your heart beats. A machine records these signals and produces a graph for your doctor to interpret.
Other diagnostic tests do include:
Holter monitor – a small device you wear that tracks your heart rhythm
Echocardiogram – ultrasound scan used to look at the heart and surrounding blood vessels
Stress test – a physical exam to monitor the heart
Blood tests – to check for problems with kidney function and anaemia
X-ray – check for possible causes of AF in other areas such as lungs
Treatment for atrial fibrillation depends on each individual circumstance like age, general health, symptoms or underlying causes. If you have an underlying cause then that may need to be treated first in order to control your AF.
It is possible to be prescribed appropriate medications called anti-arrhythmic to help control and restore a more regular heart rate if not underlying cause is found. The types of anti-arrhythmic drugs to help control your heart rate are:
These medications do carry side effects like tiredness, nausea, low blood pressure and more. It is important that you discuss any side effects and concerns with your medication with your doctor.
Medications like Warfarin are also available to reduce the risk of stroke, as AF can form blood clots in the heart chambers.
Treatments such as cardioversion and catheter ablation are recommended for people with AF.
A cardioversion involves putting electrodes which are sticky pads on your chest and connected to a defibrillator machine. Controlled electric shocks will be given to your chest. Your heart will be monitored throughout the test so the doctor will know straight away if it has worked.
A catheter ablation involves small flexible tubes called catheters that are inserted into your heart to record electrical activity. Once the abnormality is found the catheter is used to transmit high frequency ablation or freezing to destroy the tissue.
Other procedures may be available to you with your doctor will discuss at length during a consultation.
This article is intended to inform and give insight but not treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a doctor. Always seek medical advice with any questions regarding a medical condition.