Atrial fibrillation occurs when the heart's top chambers beat erratically, causing an irregular, chaotic heartbeat. While it's not life-threatening, this common condition can lead to more serious problems such as stroke or congestive heart failure if left untreated. There's a misconception that atrial fibrillation will go away over time, but it does not. It is also dangerous to ignore the condition or to accept it as part of aging.
There's a saying that atrial fibrillation begets atrial fibrillation, meaning the longer the condition exists, the more difficult it is to cure. Early steps to restore your heart to a regular rhythm are most likely to be successful. It's important to see a doctor if you have any symptoms of the condition, which can range from palpitations, loss of consciousness, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, and unexplained swelling in the lower extremity.
A normal heart contracts and relaxes regularly according to electric signals generated from within. In atrial fibrillation, the two small upper chambers of the heart, or atria, beat too fast. When the top chamber is beating irregularly, your heart does not pump as strongly, impacting how your body gets the oxygen and energy it needs. The irregular beating can cause scarring or enlargement of the heart and lead to congestive heart failure. It can also cause clots to develop, which could travel to your brain and cause a stroke.
Because people are living longer, there are more cases of atrial fibrillation. Age is the most common cause of the condition, but it can occur in young people, too.
People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sleep apnea, uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetes, and who are morbidly obese have the greatest risk of developing atrial fibrillation. The best way to prevent the condition is by keeping a low-fat diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and managing conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.
Atrial fibrillation is very easily diagnosed with an electrocardiogram (EKG). If you are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a cardiologist or electrophysiologist, a specialist who treats abnormal heart rhythms, will perform cardioversion to restore your heart to its normal rhythm as a first step.