Atrial fibrillation (A-fib) is an irregular and often very rapid heart rhythm (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots in the heart. A-fib increases the risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
During atrial fibrillation, the heart’s upper chambers (the atria) beat chaotically and irregularly — out of sync with the lower chambers (the ventricles) of the heart. For many people, A-fib may have no symptoms. However, A-fib may cause a fast, pounding heartbeat (palpitations), shortness of breath or weakness.
Episodes of atrial fibrillation may come and go, or they may be persistent. Although A-fib itself usually isn’t life-threatening, it’s a serious medical condition that requires proper treatment to prevent stroke.
Treatment for atrial fibrillation may include medications, therapy to reset the heart rhythm and catheter procedures to block faulty heart signals.
A person with atrial fibrillation may also have a related heart rhythm problem called atrial flutter. Although atrial flutter is a different arrhythmia, the treatment is quite similar to atrial fibrillation.
Some people with atrial fibrillation (A-fib) don’t notice any symptoms. Those who do have atrial fibrillation symptoms may have signs and symptoms such as:
- Sensations of a fast, fluttering or pounding heartbeat (palpitations)
- Chest pain
- Reduced ability to exercise
- Shortness of breath
Atrial fibrillation may be:
- Occasional (paroxysmal atrial fibrillation). A-fib symptoms come and go, usually lasting for a few minutes to hours. Sometimes symptoms occur for as long as a week and episodes can happen repeatedly. Symptoms might go away on their own. Some people with occasional A-fib need treatment.
- Persistent. With this type of atrial fibrillation, the heart rhythm doesn’t go back to normal on its own. If a person has A-fib symptoms, cardioversion or treatment with medications may be used to restore and maintain a normal heart rhythm.
- Long-standing persistent. This type of atrial fibrillation is continuous and lasts longer than 12 months.
- Permanent. In this type of atrial fibrillation, the irregular heart rhythm can’t be restored. Medications are needed to control the heart rate and to prevent blood clots.
When to see a doctor
If you have any signs or symptoms of atrial fibrillation, make an appointment with your doctor.
If you have chest pain, seek immediate medical help. Chest pain could mean that you’re having a heart attack.
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