Atrial Fibrillation: Know the Signs, Prevent Complications

If you've ever experienced heart palpitations (a feeling of rapid, fluttering, or pounding heartbeats), shortness of breath, and weakness, you could have atrial fibrillation, an irregular and often rapid heartbeat that causes poor blood flow to the body.

In some instances, people with atrial fibrillation have no symptoms and the condition is discovered during a regular physical exam. Other times, though, it makes itself known through obvious symptoms. During atrial fibrillation, the heart's two upper chambers (the atria) beat chaotically and irregularly, out of sync with the two lower chambers (the ventricles) of the heart. Although the condition is not usually life-threatening, it is serious and may sometimes require emergency treatment.


Atrial fibrillation may be an occasional occurrence, with symptoms lasting a few minutes to hours and then stopping on their own. Or the condition may be chronic, in which your heart rhythm is always operating at abnormal levels. During atrial fibrillation, your heart rate can spike from 100 to 175 beats a minute. A normal heart rate ranges between 60 and 100 beats a minute. Some symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Palpitations
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

Causes and Risk Factors

Abnormalities or damage to the heart's structure are usually the cause of atrial fibrillation, although in rare instances, people with the condition have no heart defects or damage and the cause is unknown. Some common causes include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attacks
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Heart defects you were born with (congenital)
  • An overactive thyroid gland
  • Emphysema or other lung diseases
  • Previous heart surgery
  • Viral infections
  • Stress due to pneumonia, surgery or other illnesses
  • Sleep apnea

In addition to the above causes, other risk factors include:

  • Advancing age
  • Drinking alcohol. Binge drinking, having five in two hours for men, or four drinks for women, may raise your risk for the condition
  • Family history


If you suspect you have atrial fibrillation, make an appointment to see your doctor. If she determines that you do have the heart condition, she may recommend that you see a cardiologist (a heart specialist). Your treatment for the disorder will depend on how long you've had the condition, how troubling your symptoms are, and the underlying cause of the problem. Treatment options include:

  • Medications to control heart rhythm or to prevent blood clots
  • Pacemakers to help regulate your heartbeat
  • Surgery to disrupt the electrical signals causing atrial fibrillation
  • Cardioversion, which involves the use of paddles or patches to electrically shock your heart and restore a normal rhythm
  • Catheter radiofrequency ablation in which thin tubes are inserted into a vein in your arm or groin to your heart and radiofrequency energy destroys the heart tissue causing the condition