Community Health Network

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Atrial fibrillation

A-fib is one of the most common heart arrhythmias, affecting millions of people in the U.S. It is a rapid, irregular heart rhythm, originating in the atrial (upper) chambers of the heart, largely due to abnormal electrical impulses.

Doctors who treat a-fib are called electrophysiologists. To be referred to one at Community, please call 800-777-7775.

What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

A-fib commonly causes palpitations and fatigue and significantly increases the risk of stroke. At rest, a normal heart beats approximately 60 – 100 times per minute. However, in a person with a-fib, that heart rate can climb sharply to 180 and higher. Through testing, we can recognize abnormalities in the heart's rhythm before any obvious symptoms are noticed.

Whether it's caused by nerves, exercise or too much caffeine, most people experience a racing heart from time to time. Most cases are harmless, but a-fib is an actual medical condition and it may often be long lasting. Some people with a-fib experience no symptoms at all. But for others, a-fib may cause:

  • Chest pain
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Fatigue
  • Light-headiness
  • Palpitations
  • Severe shortness of breath
The signs and symptoms of a-fib vary, and may have a sudden onset. They can last a short time and end spontaneously or may continue indefinitely.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

Your heart is divided into four chambers: the two upper chambers called atria, and two lower chambers called ventricles. In order for blood to be pumped through your body, a group of cells sends electrical impulses to the atria that signal your heart to contract. Contractions of the heart send about five quarts of blood through your body every minute. In people with a-fib, the impulses are sent chaotically. The atria quiver instead of beat; the blood isn't completely pumped out and may pool and potentially clot. Certain medicines (including digitalis, adenosine, and theophylline) can increase the risk of a-fib. Sometimes, a-fib may be linked to heavy alcohol, caffeine, or drug use, as well as to infections or inherited factors.

Are you at risk?

A-fib appears more commonly in women than in men. You could also be at greater risk for a-fib if you are over age 60 or you have one of the following conditions:

  • Heart defect from birth (congenital heart defect)
  • Heart disease due to high blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy)
  • Heart valve disease
  • Long-term lung disease (such as COPD)
  • Overactive thyroid gland
  • Past heart surgery
  • Sleep apnea

Diagnosing atrial fibrillation

A-fib can sometimes be diagnosed with a stethoscope during an exam by a doctor or other health care provider and is confirmed or diagnosed with an electrocardiogram (EKG).

Treatment for atrial fibrillation

Medications and electrical cardioversion are common treatments for atrial fibrillation, but do not cure it. There are two key methods to consider if medications are not working: catheter ablation or the minimally-invasive Wolf Mini-Maze surgical procedure. Both have cured atrial fibrillation in many patients.

To treat arrhythmias, your doctor may also recommend a catheter ablation procedure – an effective, low-risk treatment for abnormal rapid heart rhythms. Catheter ablation treats fast or rapid heartbeats or heart rhythms (tachycardia) with a high rate of success. The catheter ablation procedure is done in the EP lab in the hospital. Catheter ablation removes the abnormal circuits or tissues that start and maintain abnormal, fast heart rhythms. Although there are several forms of catheter ablation, the most commonly used is radiofrequency ablation, or RFA.

The latest interventional procedure to treat atrial fibrillation is a minimally-invasive operation called the Wolf Mini-Maze. The procedure combines an “ablation” method and the “maze” procedure, without open heart surgery. Patients who undergo this procedure are expected to have hospital stays of only two-three days, compared to seven days or more with conventional surgery.

Questions to ask your doctor

We encourage you to think about your questions and write them down so they can be discussed at your individual consultation. Frequently asked questions include:

  • What are my treatment options?
  • Will my condition go away on its own without treatment?
  • What are my risk factors for a-fib?
  • Am I at increased risk for having a stroke?
  • What are the risks and side effects of medical treatment for a-fib?
  • What are the risks and benefits of all my treatment options?
  • Which options are best for me?

Many people feel trapped without the knowledge of where to turn for treatment. Our goal is to provide you with information about the most advanced treatment options and get you back to a normal lifestyle.

To be referred to a Community electrophysiologist for a-fib, please call 800-777-7775.

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