Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is an abnormality in the rhythm of the heart that can cause an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate. The heart’s rhythm is regulated by electrical impulses.  A normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats a minute when you are resting, and is regular. Heart rate can be measured by feeling the pulse in the wrist or neck. When the heart is in atrial fibrillation, the heart rate may be over 140 beats a minute, although it can be any speed.

When you are in atrial fibrillation, you are unable to assess when the next heart beat will come along as the heart rate is irregular. When the heart beats normally, its muscular walls tighten and squeeze to force blood out and around the body. When they relax, the heart fills with blood again and this process occurs every time the heart beats. In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart contract randomly (fibrilate) and sometimes so fast that the heart muscle cannot relax properly causing the heart to be less efficient.

Types of Atrial Fibrillation

Paroxysmal AF – comes and goes and usually stops within 48 hours without any treatment

Persistent AF – episodes last longer that seven days or less when treated

Longstanding persistent AF – continuous for a year or longer

Permanent AF – present at all times and no more attempts to restore normal heart rhythm will be made

Symptoms

Some people do not experience any symptoms and the condition is only diagnosed during routine tests or investigations.

Causes

There are many different causes of atrial fibrillation, some are listed below. However, for some people there may appear to be no obvious reason.

Risk factors for Atrial Fibrillation

In Atrial Fibrillation, blood may pool (stagnate) due to inefficient pumping in the upper chambers of the heart. When this happens clots can form. If they break off, they can travel into the blood supply to the lungs, or to the brain where they cause a stroke. This type of stroke is called an ischemic stroke.

The main complication of the condition is an increased risk of stroke as blood clots can block arteries in the brain. Atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke by around five times.

Anticoagulants are prescribed as a preventative measure to reduce the risk of blood clots developing.

Oral anticoagulants include:

Anticoagulant therapy does not treat the symptoms of AF but helps to reduce your risk of stroke.

Treatments for AF may include: