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Atrial Fibrillation


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Atrial fibrillation (A-tre-al fi-bri-LA-shun), or AF, is the most common type of arrhythmia (ah-RITH-me-ah). An arrhythmia is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm.

AF occurs if rapid, disorganized electrical signals cause the heart's two upper chambers—called the atria (AY-tree-uh)—to fibrillate. The term "fibrillate" means to contract very fast and irregularly.

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Atrial Fibrillation

  1. 1. Fitango Education Health Topics Atrial Fibrillation
  2. 2. Overview Atrial fibrillation (A-tre-al fi-bri-LA-shun), or AF, is the most common type of arrhythmia (ah-RITH- me-ah). An arrhythmia is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm. 1
  3. 3. Overview AF occurs if rapid, disorganized electrical signals cause the hearts two upper chambers—called the atria (AY-tree-uh)—to fibrillate. The term "fibrillate" means to contract very fast and irregularly. 2
  4. 4. Symptoms Atrial fibrillation (AF) usually causes the hearts lower chambers, the ventricles, to contract faster than normal. When this happens, the ventricles cant completely fill with blood. Thus, they may not be able to pump enough blood to the lungs and body. This can lead to signs and symptoms, such as: 3
  5. 5. Symptoms -- Palpitations (feelings that your heart is skipping a beat, fluttering, or beating too hard or fast) -- Shortness of breath -- Weakness or problems exercising -- Chest pain -- Dizziness or fainting 4
  6. 6. Symptoms -- Fatigue (tiredness) -- Confusion -- Atrial Fibrillation Complications AF has two major complications—stroke and heart failure. Stroke 5
  7. 7. Symptoms During AF, the hearts upper chambers, the atria, dont pump all of their blood to the ventricles. Some blood pools in the atria. When this happens, a blood clot (also called a thrombus) can form. If the clot breaks off and travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke. (A clot that forms in one part of the body and travels in the bloodstream to another part of the body is called an embolus.) 6
  8. 8. Symptoms Blood-thinning medicines that reduce the risk of stroke are an important part of treatment for people who have AF. Heart Failure 7
  9. 9. Symptoms Heart failure occurs if the heart cant pump enough blood to meet the bodys needs. AF can lead to heart failure because the ventricles are beating very fast and cant completely fill with blood. Thus, they may not be able to pump enough blood to the lungs and body. 8
  10. 10. Symptoms Fatigue and shortness of breath are common symptoms of heart failure. A buildup of fluid in the lungs causes these symptoms. Fluid also can build up in the feet, ankles, and legs, causing weight gain. Lifestyle changes, medicines, and procedures or surgery (rarely, a mechanical heart pump or heart transplant) are the main treatments for heart failure. 9
  11. 11. Diagnosis Atrial fibrillation (AF) is diagnosed based on your medical and family histories, a physical exam, and the results from tests and procedures. Sometimes AF doesnt cause signs or symptoms. Thus, it may be found during a physical exam or EKG (electrocardiogram) test done for another purpose. 10
  12. 12. Diagnosis If you have AF, your doctor will want to find out what is causing it. This will help him or her plan the best way to treat the condition. 11
  13. 13. Treatment Treatment for atrial fibrillation (AF) depends on how often you have symptoms, how severe they are, and whether you already have heart disease. General treatment options include medicines, medical procedures, and lifestyle changes. 12
  14. 14. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** The goals of treating AF include: -- Preventing blood clots from forming, thus lowering the risk of stroke. 13
  15. 15. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** -- Controlling how many times a minute the ventricles contract. This is called rate control. Rate control is important because it allows the ventricles enough time to completely fill with blood. With this approach, the abnormal heart rhythm continues, but you feel better and have fewer symptoms. 14
  16. 16. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** -- Restoring a normal heart rhythm. This is called rhythm control. Rhythm control allows the atria and ventricles to work together to efficiently pump blood to the body. -- Treating any underlying disorder thats causing or raising the risk of AF—for example, hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone). Who Needs Treatment for Atrial Fibrillation? 15
  17. 17. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** People who have AF but dont have symptoms or related heart problems may not need treatment. AF may even go back to a normal heart rhythm on its own. (This also can occur in people who have AF with symptoms.) In some people who have AF for the first time, doctors may choose to use an electrical procedure or medicine to restore a normal heart rhythm. 16
  18. 18. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Repeat episodes of AF tend to cause changes to the hearts electrical system, leading to persistent or permanent AF. Most people who have persistent or permanent AF need treatment to control their heart rate and prevent complications. **Specific Types of Treatment** Blood Clot Prevention 17
  19. 19. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** People who have AF are at increased risk for stroke. This is because blood can pool in the hearts upper chambers (the atria), causing a blood clot to form. If the clot breaks off and travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke. Preventing blood clots from forming is probably the most important part of treating AF. The benefits of this type of treatment have been proven in multiple studies. 18
  20. 20. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Doctors prescribe blood-thinning medicines to prevent blood clots. These medicines include warfarin (Coumadin®), dabigatran, heparin, and aspirin. People taking blood-thinning medicines need regular blood tests to check how well the medicines are working. Rate Control 19
  21. 21. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Doctors can prescribe medicines to slow down the rate at which the ventricles are beating. These medicines help bring the heart rate to a normal level. Rate control is the recommended treatment for most patients who have AF, even though an abnormal heart rhythm continues and the heart doesnt work as well as it should. Most people feel better and can function well if their heart rates are well-controlled. 20
  22. 22. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Medicines used to control the heart rate include beta blockers (for example, metoprolol and atenolol), calcium channel blockers (diltiazem and verapamil), and digitalis (digoxin). Several other medicines also are available. Rhythm Control 21
  23. 23. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Restoring and maintaining a normal heart rhythm is a treatment approach recommended for people who arent doing well with rate control treatment. This treatment also may be used for people who have only recently started having AF. The long- term benefits of rhythm control have not been proven conclusively yet. 22
  24. 24. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Doctors use medicines or procedures to control the hearts rhythm. Patients often begin rhythm control treatment in a hospital so that their hearts can be closely watched. The longer you have AF, the less likely it is that doctors can restore a normal heart rhythm. This is especially true for people who have had AF for 6 months or more. 23
  25. 25. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Restoring a normal rhythm also becomes less likely if the atria are enlarged or if any underlying heart disease worsens. In these cases, the chance that AF will recur is high, even if youre taking medicine to help convert AF to a normal rhythm. Medicines 24
  26. 26. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Medicines used to control the heart rhythm include amiodarone, sotalol, flecainide, propafenone, dofe tilide, and ibutilide. Sometimes older medicines— such as quinidine, procainamide, and disopyramide—are used. Your doctor will carefully tailor the dose and type of medicines he or she prescribes to treat your AF. This is because medicines used to treat AF can cause a different kind of arrhythmia. 25
  27. 27. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** These medicines also can harm people who have underlying diseases of the heart or other organs. This is especially true for patients who have an unusual heart rhythm problem called Wolff- Parkinson-White syndrome. 26
  28. 28. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Your doctor may start you on a small dose of medicine and then gradually increase the dose until your symptoms are controlled. Medicines used for rhythm control can be given regularly by injection at a doctors office, clinic, or hospital. Or, you may routinely take pills to try to control AF or prevent repeat episodes. 27
  29. 29. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** If your doctor knows how youll react to a medicine, a specific dose may be prescribed for you to take on an as-needed basis if you have an episode of AF. Procedures 28
  30. 30. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Doctors use several procedures to restore a normal heart rhythm. For example, they may use electrical cardioversion to treat a fast or irregular heartbeat. For this procedure, low-energy shocks are given to your heart to trigger a normal rhythm. Youre temporarily put to sleep before you receive the shocks. 29
  31. 31. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Electrical cardioversion isnt the same as the emergency heart shocking procedure often seen on TV programs. Its planned in advance and done under carefully controlled conditions. 30
  32. 32. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Before doing electrical cardioversion, your doctor may recommend transesophageal echocardiography (TEE). This test can rule out the presence of blood clots in the atria. If clots are present, you may need to take blood-thinning medicines before the procedure. These medicines can help get rid of the clots. 31
  33. 33. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Catheter ablation (ab-LA-shun) may be used to restore a normal heart rhythm if medicines or electrical cardioversion dont work. For this procedure, a wire is inserted through a vein in the leg or arm and threaded to the heart. 32
  34. 34. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Radio wave energy is sent through the wire to destroy abnormal tissue that may be disrupting the normal flow of electrical signals. An electrophysiologist usually does this procedure in a hospital. Your doctor may recommend a TEE before catheter ablation to check for blood clots in the atria. 33
  35. 35. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Sometimes doctors use catheter ablation to destroy the atrioventricular (AV) node. The AV node is where the hearts electrical signals pass from the atria to the ventricles (the hearts lower chambers). This procedure requires your doctor to surgically implant a device called a pacemaker, which helps maintain a normal heart rhythm. 34
  36. 36. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Research on the benefits of catheter ablation as a treatment for AF is still ongoing. (For more information, go to the "Clinical Trials" section of this article.) Another procedure to restore a normal heart rhythm is called maze surgery. For this procedure, the surgeon makes small cuts or burns in the atria. These cuts or burns prevent the spread of disorganized electrical signals. 35
  37. 37. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** This procedure requires open-heart surgery, so its usually done when a person requires heart surgery for other reasons, such as for heart valve disease (which can increase the risk of AF). **Approaches To Treating Underlying Causes and Reducing Risk Factors** 36
  38. 38. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Your doctor may recommend treatments for an underlying cause of AF or to reduce AF risk factors. For example, he or she may prescribe medicines to treat an overactive thyroid, lower high blood pressure, or manage high blood cholesterol. Your doctor also may recommend lifestyle changes, such as following a healthy diet, cutting back on salt intake (to help lower blood pressure), quitting smoking, and reducing stress. 37
  39. 39. Treatment **Goals of Treatment** Limiting or avoiding alcohol, caffeine, or other stimulants that may increase your heart rate also can help reduce your risk for AF. 38
  40. 40. Causes Atrial fibrillation (AF) occurs if the hearts electrical signals dont travel through the heart in a normal way. Instead, they become very rapid and disorganized. Damage to the hearts electrical system 39
  41. 41. Causes causes AF. The damage most often is the result of other conditions that affect the health of the heart, such as high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. The risk of AF increases as you age. 40
  42. 42. Causes Inflammation also is thought to play a role in causing AF. Sometimes, the cause of AF is unknown. 41
  43. 43. Risks Atrial fibrillation (AF) affects millions of people, and the number is rising. Men are more likely than women to have the condition. In the United States, AF is more common among Whites than African Americans or Hispanic Americans. 42
  44. 44. Risks The risk of AF increases as you age. This is mostly because your risk for heart disease and other conditions that can cause AF also increases as you age. However, about half of the people who have AF are younger than 75. AF is uncommon in children. 43
  45. 45. Prevention Following a healthy lifestyle and taking steps to lower your risk for heart disease may help you prevent atrial fibrillation (AF). These steps include: -- Following a heart healthy diet thats low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. A healthy diet includes a variety of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables daily. 44
  46. 46. Prevention -- Not smoking. -- Being physically active. -- Maintaining a healthy weight. -- If you already have heart disease or other AF risk factors, work with your doctor to manage your condition. 45
  47. 47. Prevention In addition to adopting the healthy habits above, which can help control heart disease, your doctor may advise you to: 46
  48. 48. Living and Coping People who have atrial fibrillation (AF)—even permanent AF—can live normal, active lives. If you have AF, ongoing medical care is important. Keep all your medical appointments. Bring a list of all the medicines youre taking to every doctor and emergency room visit. This will help your doctor know exactly what medicines youre taking. 47
  49. 49. Living and Coping Follow your doctors instructions for taking medicines. Be careful about taking over-the- counter medicines, nutritional supplements, and cold and allergy medicines. Some of these products contain stimulants that can trigger rapid heart rhythms. Also, some over-the-counter medicines can have harmful interactions with heart rhythm medicines. 48
  50. 50. Living and Coping +++Tell your doctor if your medicines are causing side effects, if your symptoms are getting worse, or if you have new symptoms. 49
  51. 51. Living and Coping If youre taking blood-thinning medicines, youll need to be carefully monitored. For example, you may need routine blood tests to check how the medicines are working. Also, talk with your doctor about your diet. Some foods, such as leafy green vegetables, may interfere with warfarin, a blood- thinning medicine. 50
  52. 52. Living and Coping Ask your doctor about physical activity, weight control, and alcohol use. Find out what steps you can take to manage your condition. 51
  53. 53. Additional Resources CDC National Heart Lung and Blood Institute 52