The heart is the organ that pumps blood to the rest of the body. It does this routinely and automatically without a person having to think about it. The heart knows when to speed up and when to slow down depending on the activities being performed. There is a natural rhythm to the work of the heart. This is guided by its own electrical system. The top part of the heart contracts and then the bottom part. The result is a “lub dub” beating pattern called normal sinus rhythm.
Sometimes the heart gets out of rhythm. An abnormal heart rhythm is called an arrhythmia. There are many different kinds of arrhythmias, but the most common one is atrial fibrillation. This occurs when the upper chambers of the heart quiver or twitch chaotically and extremely quickly. This is in contrast to the smooth, regular pattern that usually occurs. The upper chambers of the heart are
called the atria. Fibrillation is a fast and irregular rhythm. Thus, the name of the most common arrhythmia, which affects more than 2 million people in the United States, is called atrial fibrillation (AF).
AF is caused by aging of the heart muscle and electrical system. It can also be caused by extra electrical triggers in the heart. There are many risk factors associated with developing the abnormal rhythm. Some of these include:
- An age greater than 60
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart failure
- Structural heart disease
- Abnormal electrolyte levels
Other possible contributing factors include previous heart surgery, other abnormal heart rhythms, thyroid disease, chronic lung disease, obstructive sleep apnea, excessive alcohol or stimulant use, serious illness, and infection.
The symptoms that are experienced in AF vary greatly. Some people have fatigue or get short of breath with exertion. Others feel a racing, pounding, or fluttering sensation called palpitations. Sometimes there is a decrease in the ability to perform usual daily activities. Chest discomfort, light headedness, dizziness, or feeling faint may also occur. An increase in urination has also been described. On the other hand, some people do not notice any symptoms.
There are several significant health problems associated with atrial fibrillation. Overall quality of life can be greatly diminished due to multiple associated symptoms. Although isolated episodes are typically not life-threatening, the long term affects can sometimes shorten lifespan. Blood clots can form due to the change in blood flow through the top chambers of the heart. These clots can travel to the brain and result in a stroke. Approximately 15 out of 100 strokes are associated with AF. If the heart rate remains elevated due to atrial fibrillation for a prolonged period of time, the cardiac muscle can weaken. This can result in heart failure. Fortunately, the heart function with this kind of heart failure can usually return to baseline with adequate
control of the heart rate.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common abnormal rhythm. Although it is the most common arrhythmia, its cause and management plan are unique for each person. It is important for patients to routinely re-evaluate their treatment options as these continue to change as more is learned about this complex arrhythmia.
West Tennessee Healthcare Heart and Vascular offers comprehensive care for a full range of cardiovascular disease, including Afib. Nationally trained physicians and state-of-the-art technology ensures patients receive the care their condition demands right here—close to home. For more information about West Tennessee Healthcare Heart and Vascular services call (731) 541-2273.