Atrial Fibrillation: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular and fast heart rhythm. This condition can increase the risk of heart failure, other heart-related complications, and stroke.

A normal heart rate of 60 to 100 times per minute while you are resting. While this disease has an irregular heart rhythm can reach 100 to 175 times per minute. You can measure your heart rate by feeling the pulse in your neck or wrist.

This heart rhythm disorder can come and go, or even last a long time and may require treatment. Although generally not life-threatening, this disease is a serious medical condition that sometimes requires emergency treatment.

Atrial fibrillation is a disease that has the potential to develop blood clots in the upper chambers of the heart. Blood clots that form in the heart can spread to other organs and cause blocked blood flow.

Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a condition caused by interference with electrical signals in four heart chambers, two atria and two ventricles.

The atria and ventricles usually contract at the same speed. In this disease, the atria and ventricles are out of sync because the atria contract very quickly and irregularly.

The cause of atrial fibrillation is not always known. However, conditions that can cause this disease include:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart valve disease
  • Heart surgery
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where the heart muscle becomes thick
  • Congenital heart defects, or heart defects from birth
  • Overactive thyroid gland
  • Pericarditis – inflammation of the thin sac that encloses the heart
  • Take certain medications
  • Thyroid disease

Risk Factors

Certain factors can increase your risk of developing atrial fibrillation, including:

1. Age

The more you age, the higher your risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

2. Heart Disease

People with heart disease – such as heart valve problems, congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, or a history of heart attack or heart surgery – are at high risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

3. High Blood Pressure

Having high blood pressure (hypertension), especially if not properly controlled with lifestyle changes or medications can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation.

4. Other Chronic Conditions

People with certain chronic conditions such as thyroid problems, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea, chronic kidney disease or lung disease have an increased risk.

5. Family History

Having a family member who has atrial fibrillation is at high risk for this disease.

6. Overweight

People who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

7. Drink alcohol

Drinking alcohol for some people can trigger atrial fibrillation. It can even be at higher risk if you drink excessive alcohol.

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

Some sufferers may not experience symptoms and do not know the condition and are usually aware of when doing a physical examination. People who have symptoms of atrial fibrillation can experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Palpitations – tight and irregular heartbeat sensations
  • Reduced exercise ability
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Dizzy
  • Mild headache
  • Chest pain
  • Hard to breathe

When to see a doctor?

Immediately consult a doctor if you experience symptoms of atrial fibrillation. Your doctor can do an electrocardiogram to determine whether your symptoms are related to this disease or other heart rhythm disorders, such as arrhythmias.

However, if you experience chest pain, get immediate medical help. This condition can indicate you have a heart attack.

Complications

Atrial fibrillation can cause several potentially life-threatening health problems, including:

1. Heart Failure

Atrial fibrillation can cause heart failure, especially when the heart rate is fast. When the heartbeat is irregular, the amount of blood flow from the atria to the ventricles varies for each heartbeat.

The ventricles may not be filled before the heartbeat. Then the heart fails to pump enough blood to the body, and blood builds up in the lungs and other areas. Atrial fibrillation can also worsen underlying heart failure symptoms.

2. Stroke

This condition occurs when an embolus blocks an artery in the brain and reduces or stops the flow of blood to the brain. Stroke symptoms vary depending on the part of the brain where it occurs. Symptoms include weakness in parts of the body, confusion, and vision problems, difficulty speaking and moving.

3. Blood Clots

Blood can clot in the atrium if the heart does not beat regularly. Clots called embolus can break and circulate to various parts of the body through the bloodstream and cause blockages. Embolus can inhibit blood flow to the kidneys, intestines, spleen, brain, or lungs. Of course this condition can be fatal.

4. Cognitive Problems

A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association shows that sufferers of this disease have a higher risk of cognitive problems and dementia, which are not associated with reduced blood flow in the brain.

Diagnosis

The doctor will examine the signs and symptoms, medical history, and physical examination (checking pulse, blood pressure, and lungs) to diagnose atrial fibrillation. In addition, the doctor will also carry out the following tests:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG). A test that records the electrical impulses of the heart for several seconds. If atrial fibrillation does not occur during an EKG, your doctor may recommend using a portable ECG monitor or trying other types of tests.
  • Holter Monitor. A small ECG device that can be carried in a pocket, worn on a belt or shoulder strap. This tool can be used for 24 to 48 hours to record heart activity.
  • Echocardiogram. Imaging that uses sound waves to produce images of the heart. This tool is shaped like a stick (transducer) that is placed on the chest.
  • Chest radiograph. This X-ray examination helps the doctor see the condition of your lungs and heart. Doctors can also use x-rays to diagnose conditions other than this disease.
  • Blood test. This test helps the doctor rule out thyroid problems or other substances in your blood that can cause this disease.
  • Stress test. Also called a sports test, a stress test involves a test running on your heart while you exercise.

Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a disruption of electrical signals to the heart that can be overcome by administering drugs and other medications, which can slow the heart rate back to normal rhythm, prevent blood clots and strokes.

1. Blood thinners

These drugs thin the blood to reduce the risk of atrial fibrillation. But this drug can increase the risk of bleeding, for that you have to reduce some activities that can cause injury. Medications used include:

  • Aspirin
  • Apixaban
  • Clopidogrel
  • Dabigatran
  • Enoxaparin
  • Heparin
  • Rivaroxaban
  • Warfarin

2. Medication for Heartbeat Control

The most common use of drugs to treat atrial fibrillation is drugs that control heart rate. This drug slows the rapid heartbeat so the heart can pump better. Most drugs used are digoxin.

You can also take other medicines. Some of them are called beta-blockers. The benefits of the following drugs can also slow the heart rate:

  • Atenolol
  • Bisoprolol
  • Carvedilol
  • Metoprolol
  • Propranolol
  • Timolol

3. Medication for Heart Rhythm

This drug slows electrical signals to make the rhythm of the heartbeat normal. This treatment is sometimes called chemical cardioversion.

Sodium channel blockers can slow the heart’s ability to conduct electricity, including flecainide, propafenone, and quinidine.

While potassium channel blockers can slow down electrical signals that cause atrial fibrillation, including amiodarone, dofetilide, and sotalol.

4. Cardioversion and Ablation

If drug use is ineffective or causes side effects, you can try one of two procedures called cardioversion or ablation.

  • Cardioversion or electroshock: Doctors give an electric shock to the heart to regulate your heart rate. A device called an electrode is attached to the chest.
  • Ablation: Procedures that can correct heart rhythm problems. Ablation works by destroying tissue in the heart that triggers an abnormal heart rhythm.

5. Preventing Blood Clots

Your doctor may prescribe anticoagulants, or blood thinners. These drugs can inhibit blood clots in patients with atrial fibrillation. These drugs include, warfarin, rivaroxaban, apixaban, and edoxaban.

Prevention of Atrial Fibrillation

Implementing a healthy lifestyle can prevent or reduce the risk of heart disease. Follow a healthy lifestyle that you can adopt to prevent atrial fibrillation:

  • Eat heart-healthy foods, such as foods that are low in salt and rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Exercise every day and increase physical activity.
  • Avoid smoking, both active and passive smokers.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight can increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Reduce or avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Reducing stress, because stress and intense anger can cause heart rhythm problems.
  • Use over-the-counter medicines with caution, because some colds and cough medicines contain stimulants which can trigger a rapid heartbeat.

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