Intermountain Healthcare

Knowing the Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment Options for Atrial Fibrillation

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Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib or AF) is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib.

More than 454,000 hospitalizations with AFib as the primary diagnosis happen each year in the United States. The condition contributes to about 158,000 deaths each year. The death rate from AFib as the primary or a contributing cause of death has been rising for more than two decades.

Here’s how patients have described their experience

  • “My heart flip-flops skips beats, and feels like it’s banging against my chest wall, especially if I’m carrying stuff up my stairs or bending down.”
  • “I was nauseated, light-headed, and weak. I had a really fast heartbeat and felt like I was gasping for air.”
  • “I had no symptoms at all. I discovered my AF at a regular check-up. I’m glad we found it early.”

What Happens During AFib?

Normally, your heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat. In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly (quiver) instead of beating effectively to move blood into the ventricles.

If a clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream, and lodges in an artery leading to the brain, a stroke results. About 15 to 20 percent of people who have strokes have this heart arrhythmia. This clot risk is why patients with this condition are put on blood thinners.

Even though untreated atrial fibrillation doubles the risk of heart-related deaths and is associated with a five-fold increased risk for stroke, many patients are unaware that AFib is a serious condition, according to Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, a cardiologist at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute.

Facts About AFib
  • It is estimated that 12.1 million people in the United States will have AFib in 2030.
  • In 2018, AFib was mentioned on 175,326 death certificates and was the underlying cause of death in 25,845 of those deaths.
  • People of European descent are more likely to have AFib than African Americans.
  • Because the number of AFib cases increases with age and women generally live longer than men, more women than men experience AFib.

Some people who have AFib don’t know they have it and don’t have any symptoms. Others may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart palpitations (rapid, fluttering, or pounding)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

The risk for AFib increases with age. High blood pressure, the risk for which also increases with advancing age, accounts for about 1 in 5 cases of AFib. Risk Factors Include:

  • Advancing age
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • European ancestry
  • Diabetes
  • Heart failure
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Moderate to heavy alcohol use
  • Smoking
  • Enlargement of the chambers on the left side of the heart

AFib increases a person’s risk for stroke. When standard stroke risk factors were accounted for, AFib was associated with a four- to fivefold increased risk of ischemic stroke.AFib causes about 1 in 7 strokes.

Strokes caused by complications from AFib tend to be more severe than strokes with other underlying causes. Strokes happen when blood flow to the brain is blocked by a blood clot or by fatty deposits called plaque in the blood vessel lining.

Treatment for AFib can include:

  • Medicines to control the heart’s rhythm and rate
  • Blood-thinning medicine to prevent blood clots from forming and reduce stroke risk
  • Surgery
  • Medicine and healthy lifestyle changes to manage AFib risk factors

For more information, visit the Intermountain Healthcare website.

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