Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common heart rhythm disorder seen by doctors. It’s a big public health issue in terms of not only the sheer number of patients affected, but also by the fact that managing these specific arrhythmias (which is the medical name for heart rhythm problems) is expensive.
Also Known As: A Fib, AF, Atrial Fib, auricular fibrillation, supraventricular arrhythmia, supraventricular tachyarrhythmia
The heart has an electrical system that controls both the speed and rhythm of each heartbeat. This electrical system is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which also handles critical functions such as breathing and digestion — all those functions that need to happen automatically rather than under our conscious control.
AF is a major risk factor for stroke (increasing stroke risk about 5-fold) with the absolute level of risk somewhat dependent on the number of additional risk factors for stroke in a given individual.
Doctors tend to label AF by its pattern of occurrence. Episodes that last seven days or less (often less than 24 hours) are called “paroxysmal AF” and they usually stop on their own. However, when AF lasts longer than seven days, it is considered “persistent” and may require treatment before the episode stops. When AF lasts longer than a year it is considered “permanent”. If an individual has two or more AF episodes, whether the arrhythmia stops on its own or must be stopped via therapy, the condition is considered “recurrent AF”.
In the United States, about 2.2 million people have AF. This is the most common arrhythmia that doctors see in practice, and AF is the cause of about one-third of all hospitalizations related to cardiac rhythm problems. AF tends to occur more frequently in older people, primarily because the older you are, the more likely you are to have heart disease or other health problems.
Some health conditions associated with AF include:
One acute condition associated with AF is excessive alcohol consumption.
Other acute conditions relate to medical factors such as surgery, lung disease, asthma attacks, extreme body stress due to conditions such as pneumonia, or the occurrence of a metabolic disorder, such as hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland).
A number of chronic or long-term conditions also can lead to AF. For the most part, these consist of existing heart problems, such as congenital heart defects, particularly atrial septal defect, or heart valve diseases such as those related to prior rheumatic fever.
AF tends to occur more frequently in older people primarily because the older you are, the more likely you are to have heart disease or other health problems.
Probably the most recognizable sign of AF is heart palpitations, where your heart beats so fast that you think it is racing and/or you can feel it thumping or flopping in your chest. It may be accompanied by chest pain; lightheadedness or dizziness, especially if you are exerting yourself; weakness; or shortness of breath, including difficulty breathing when lying down. AF symptoms will vary depending on the degree of pulse irregularity and resultant heart rate, underlying functional status, how long the AF lasts, and individual patient factors.
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