What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial Fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm caused by irregular electrical pulses in the upper chambers of the heart, the atria. As a result, the atria no longer beat in an organised way and pump blood less efficiently through to the lower chambers of the heart, the ventricles. Although the heart will stop some of the irregular impulses from travelling down to the ventricles, they will still beat irregularly and very rapidly, generating an abnormal heartbeat. This irregular heartbeat may occur in short episodes lasting for minutes to weeks, or it could occur all the time, for a number of years.
Atrial Fibrillation can be detected from an irregular pulse but is diagnosed following assessment with an electrocardiogram (ECG) carried out by a doctor or nurse.
Who can suffer from Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial Fibrillation is the most common form of abnormal heart rhythm and can affect almost anyone. Although it is linked to several cardiac conditions, Artial Fibrillation can also occur in otherwise normal hearts. The risk of Atrial Fibrillation increases significantly with age.
What are the symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial Fibrillation itself is not life-threatening but can result in heart palpitations, fainting, dizziness, shortness of breath and chest pain.
What are the risks associated with Atrial Fibrillation?
The main risk associated with Atrial Fibrillation is an increased risk of Stroke.
As Atrial Fibrillation causes inefficient pumping of blood through the heart, blood can stay in the heart chambers and form a clot. If this clot travels up to the brain, this can result in a Stroke. The risk of blood clots forming within the heart and being circulated around the body varies due to several factors, including whether Atrial Fibrillation occurs in short episodes (episodic Atrial Fibrillation) or for much longer periods of time (persistent or permanent Atrial Fibrillation).
A specialist Cardiologist can assess the risk of Stroke and offer the most appropriate preventative treatment.
How can blood clots be prevented?
In patients with a high risk of blood clots forming, anticoagulants or blood thinners such as Warfarin are often prescribed. Patients on blood thinners require regular monitoring with blood tests to ensure their treatment is effective.
If the risk of blood clots forming is very high, immediate injections of the blood thinner Heparin are required.
With a low risk, Asprin or an alternative medication may be offered as a preventative treatment.
What changes should in symptoms should I look out for?
Patients with Atrial Fibrillation should be aware of changes in their symptoms or duration of episodes which may indicate the need for a re-assessment of their treatment. Medical advice should be sought following any changes in symptoms, including:
- If episodic Atrial Fibrillation lasts longer than usual or more than 24 hours
- If increased chest pain, shortness of breath or fatigue occurs on exercise. This could indicate impaired pumping of the heart
- If speech, vision, balance and/or movement of one side of the body becomes impaired or the patient becomes confused. This could indicate a mini-stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) and under these circumstances emergency medical advice should be sought immediately