Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common cardiac arrhythmia presenting to a cardiologist. It effects nearly 1% of the population. Its prevalence increases with increasing age; it is infrequent in those under 40 years old, but occurs in up to 5% of those over 80 years of age.
In this condition, the upper heart chambers (atria) do not beat in a regular pattern. Instead, the ‘fibrillate’, which means that the electrical signals passing through the muscle in the atrial walls are disorganized and travel randomly and at a rapid rate. The result of the above is that the bottom chambers of the heart, the ventricles, beat irregularly.
Age is a risk factor for acquiring AF. This arrhythmia is also associated with other types of heart disease and other medical disorders. There are different patterns of AF. Patients, who have paroxysmal AF, have a normal heart rhythm most of the time, which changes to AF some of the time. Patients, who have permanent AF, never have a normal heart rhythm.
Many patients, who have AF, have no symptoms at all. Commonly, AF is felt as an abnormal heartbeat (palpitations). A doctor commonly notices AF, during a routine medical examination.
Aside from the symptoms, patients in AF may be at increased risk of stroke. AF is an important cause of stroke, and detection and appropriate treatment of AF is important, whether or not the patient is experiencing troubling symptoms.
Treatment options for AF will vary depending on the patient’s individual set of medical problems and risk factors. It is common for patients to be given medication to prevent episodes of AF, or to slow down the heartbeat when they are in AF. Most patients with AF will need to take anticoagulants (blood thinners) to prevent stroke. Some patients with paroxysmal AF will be offered an attempt at cure with a procedure called ‘ablation’.
Patients can usually go about their everyday activities when they have AF as long as their symptoms are controlled. In most cases, AF is a chronic condition, managed with the help of the heart specialist.