Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation
While some people with atrial fibrillation (AF) do not experience any symptoms, others may have symptoms that include:
- Palpitations (a feeling of the heart beating rapidly)
- Decreased exercise tolerance
- Shortness of breath
- Chest Pain
- Passing out
Who is at Risk?
The older you are, the greater your risk of developing atrial fibrillation. It also occurs more commonly in women than men. Some factors that increase your risk are:
- High blood pressure
- Abnormal heart valves
- Congestive heart failure
- Coronary artery disease
- Congenital heart defects
- An overactive thyroid gland
- Heart stimulants such as caffeine, tobacco or alcohol
- Sick sinus syndrome - this happens when the heart's natural pacemaker does not work properly
- Previous heart surgery
- Emphysema or other chronic lung diseases
- Viral infections
Sometimes AF can occur in healthy people without an apparent cause.
Complications of Atrial Fibrillation
Although often causing troublesome symptoms, AF usually does not result in dangerous complications. Sometimes, however, AF can cause devastating problems, such as:
- Stroke. In AF, the ineffective pumping of blood in the atrium may cause pooling of blood in the heart and cause blood clots to form. If these blood clots dislodge and travel to the brain, they can block blood flow, causing a stroke. If they travel to the leg or intestines then other serious problems can arise. The risk of stroke in AF increases with age, high blood pressure, heart failure, a previous stroke and other factors. Blood thinners can lower your risk of stroke or damage to other organs caused by blood clots, but you must take them all the time and they can be difficult to manage.
- Congestive heart failure. The persistently rapid heart rate associated with AF can weaken the heart muscle, leading to heart failure - a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body's needs.
Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation
To make a diagnosis of AF, your doctor may perform one or more of these tests:
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) where electrodes are placed on your chest and body to record the heart's electrical impulses over a few seconds or minutes,
- Holter monitor testing where you wear a portable monitor for 24 hours that records the heart's electrical impulses over the course of the day, and/or an
- Echocardiogram, where sound waves are used to provide motion pictures of your heart.