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Three Questions About Atrial Fibrillation Answered

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, the most common heart rhythm disorder, is when your heart beats irregularly.

With AFib, “the electrical signals of the upper chamber of the heart (atrium) are disorganized and chaotic. This typically gives an uncomfortable fluttering sensation,” explained Julia Indik, MD, PhD, a cardiologist with Banner – University Medical Center Tucson and South who specializes in heart rhythm disorders.

What’s normal and what’s not?

Oftentimes AFib feels like your heart is racing, skipping or pounding. Some people also experience lightheadedness and fatigue, discomfort in the chest and shortness of breath.

“An irregular heartbeat can mean many things, including normal skipped beats that all of us have from time to time,” shared Dr. Indik. “It’s important, though, to discuss with your primary physician if your heart rhythm feels abnormal to determine if further testing or a referral to a cardiologist is needed.”

How are AFib and stroke related?

When the heart beats irregularly, it pumps an inconsistent amount of blood from the heart to other parts of the body. When this happens, blood can pool increasing your risk for blood clots. If a blood clot travels to the brain, you can have a stroke.

Your doctor will determine if your atrial fibrillation puts you at risk for a stroke and if you need blood thinners.

Risk factors for stroke with atrial fibrillation include:

  • Being 65 years or older
  • Having diabetes
  • Being female
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Previous heart failure or heart attack
  • Previous stroke or near stroke

Learn more about atrial fibrillation and stroke.

What are the next steps after diagnosis?

Once your doctor diagnoses you with AFib and your risk for stroke determined, you and your doctor will determine your treatment options.

Options typically include:

  • Medications
  • Electrical cardioversion, which sends small shocks to the heart to put it back into a normal rhythm
  • Ablation, a minimally invasive procedure where small catheters send out energy to correct the cause of your atrial fibrillation
  • Surgery

“Atrial fibrillation, like diabetes, is a disorder that is important to manage and control but, for most people, is not curable,” said Dr. Indik. The more you know about your atrial fibrillation, the better decisions you'll be able to make as you work with your doctors. You can learn more about atrial fibrillation in our Health Library and on our website.

Sources: American Heart Association

Sarver Heart Center

Heart Health Senior Health

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