What You Need to Know About Atrial Fibrillation

Almost a half-million new cases of atrial fibrillation or heart palpitations are diagnosed each year in the U.S. Also known as arrhythmia, or auricular fibrillation, this causes heart palpitations ,shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, confusion, fainting, foot and ankle swelling and coughs with foamy mucus. 


It's currently the most common problem regarding the heart's rhythm. The main cause of heart failure and a major risk factor for stroke is atrial fibrillation. The heart contains four chambers, where the two upper chambers are called atria which is where the blood enters. Then the chambers contract to fill the lower chambers called ventricles. From there, the lower chambers contract and pump blood to the rest of the body. A normal heartbeat will have normal contractions and both the upper and lower chambers work at the same pace. With fibrillation, the upper chambers beat much faster than the lower ones. So the upper chambers beat much faster than the lower ones. So the ventricle won't completely fill and the heart has to work harder to get blood to the rest of the body.

It's possible to have this condition and no notice any symptoms. Irregular pulse is usually the first sign or hard to find because it's so weak. Patients may also feel tired and weak with a sensation that their heart is racing. It's possible to go months before a doctor notices a problem during a physical exam. The longer it goes untreated the more likely you are to notice symptoms of heart failure. 

Strokes are also a potential problem, which is why it's imperative patients see their doctor immediately for a full heart evaluation. As far as treating this, it really depends on the severity of the symptoms and whether or not you already have heart disease. The first step is to address the fibrillation, it could mean making lifestyle changes such as cutting out alcohol or caffeine and eating a heart-healthy Your doctor may prescribe heart rhythm medications and a blood thinner may also help. 

Those most at risk have a history of Graves' disease, hyperthyroidism, older age, alcoholism and a family history of irregular heartbeats. 

Atrial fibrillation is often diagnosed with a physical exam and an electrocardiogram (EKG). Some patients' heartbeats may stay regular during an EKG. So they wear a Holter monitor that records the heart's rhythm over a 24-hour period. Others wear a monitor they can activate when they feel their heartbeat become irregular. Ultrasound, or echocardiogram, is sometimes used to look for conditions that may accompany atrial fibrillation.