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Atrial fibrillation (AF)

Atrial fibrillation (AF or A-fib) is the most common cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal or irregular heart beat). The prevalence of AF in a population increases with age, with 8% of people over 80 having AF. Chronic AF leads to a small increase in the risk of death. AF is an important cause of stroke. A third of all strokes are caused by AF.

In AF, the normal regular electrical impulses generated by the normal heart rhythm, are overwhelmed by disorganized electrical impulses , leading to an irregular heartbeat.

It may cause no symptoms, or it may be accompanied by palpitations, chest discomfort, or shortness of breath. AF may occur in episodes lasting from minutes to days (“paroxysmal”), or be permanent. It may occur as the only heart problem, or be accompanied by other forms of heart disease.

AF may be diagnosed clinically when taking a pulse, and the presence of AF can be confirmed with an electrocardiogram (ECG).

AF increases the risk of stroke. The degree of stroke risk can be up to seven times that of the average population, depending on the presence of additional risk factors.

Atrial fibrillation may be treated with medications to either slow the heart rate to a normal range (“rate control”) or revert the heart rhythm back to normal (“rhythm control”). Synchronized electrical cardioversion can be used to convert AF to a normal heart rhythm. Surgical and catheter-based therapies may be used to prevent recurrence of AF in certain individuals.

People with AF often take anticoagulants (“blood thinners”) such as warfarin to protect them from stroke, depending on the calculated risk.

Your heart specialist will advise you regarding your risk of stroke and the need for tests, medications and other treatments if you have Atrial Fibrillation.