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Causes, treatment, and prevention of atrial fibrillation (AFib)

by Joe Gates

Atrial fibrillation (otherwise known as AFib or AF) is a rapid, erratic heartbeat. At times it is defined as a trembling or fluttery heartbeat. It is the most widespread heart arrhythmia and usually brings about the heart beating too fast–or otherwise with an erratic rhythm. The American Heart Association (AHA) assesses that nearly 3 million Americans struggle with AFib, and the number of people living with this ailment augments with age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that about 2% of people below 65 years of age struggle with AFib, contrary to nearly 9% of people with 65 years of age or more. 

Normally, the heartbeat has a regular rhythm. It lets the atria (the upper heart chambers) push blood into the ventricles (the lower heart chambers) and subsequently throughout the body. On the other hand, in atrial fibrillation, the atria beat much quicker and dissimilar to the ventricles. In AFib, the heart rate can vary between 100 and 175 beats per minute, while the average heart rate is typically 60 to 100 beats per minute. This fast heart rate inhibits the ventricles from refilling with blood, and, afterward, less blood gets pushed to the remainder of the body. The blood accumulates in the atria as they are “trembling” instead of completely pressing the blood into the ventricles, resulting in blood clots along with other complications like strokes. 

Risk factors for atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation has risk factors involving:

  • Older age: As you grow older, your risk of atrial fibrillation will be higher, particularly after 65.
  • Hypertension: Unrestrained high blood pressure makes you have an augmented risk for atrial fibrillation. It is believed that this risk factor is responsible for 14–22% of atrial fibrillation cases.
  • Smoking: The longer you smoke, the higher becomes the risk of your getting atrial fibrillation, and the risk reduces when you quit smoking. 
  • Heart disease: If you suffer from heart disease such as coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, inflammation of the heart, heart valve problems, congenital heart disease, an enlarged heart, a history of heart surgery or heart attack, your risk for getting atrial fibrillation is higher.
  • Obesity: Overweight people have a higher risk of getting atrial fibrillation.
  • Race/Ethnicity: In the United States, white people are more commonly affected by atrial fibrillation.  
  • Alcohol and banned drugs: Having alcoholic drinks, particularly binge drinking, increases your risk of getting atrial fibrillation. Likewise, some prohibited drugs such as cocaine can instigate atrial fibrillation. 

Signs and symptoms of atrial fibrillation

Causes, treatment, and prevention of atrial fibrillation (AFib)

Occasionally, people having atrial fibrillation do not show any symptoms and are oblivious of anything wrong with their hearts. In such cases, the healthcare provider usually diagnoses the condition during a physical exam. Other persons can be affected by minor to severe symptoms incorporating:

  • Trembling, competing, uneven heartbeat (palpitations)
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Difficulty exercising on account of fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

Complications of atrial fibrillation

Though getting your heartbeat irregularly or much quicker than usual is not a happy feeling, it is the complications due to atrial fibrillation that are more precarious to your health, and the complications comprise heart failure and strokes.  

If the atria are “trembling” instead of completely releasing and pressing the entire blood into the ventricles, you get stagnant blood that pools, resulting in blood clots. And if these blood clots move to your heart or brain, you get strokes or heart attacks. For people with atrial fibrillation, there is a 4 to 5 times higher risk of stroke in comparison with people who do not have AFib. It has been shown in clinical trials that atrial fibrillation triggers 15-20% of all ischemic strokes – a distinctive type of stroke on account of blood clots in the brain. 

Due to this possibility for blood clot development, heart attacks are as well a likely health corollary of atrial fibrillation.

Heart failure is another complication of atrial fibrillation, and in this condition, the heart does not pump an adequate amount of blood into the lungs and body. 

Treatment for atrial fibrillation

The treatment aims for atrial fibrillation are concentrated on preventing strokes, and in multiple cases, returning to your natural heart rate and rhythm.  

The plan for preventing strokes includes numerous diverse treatment courses. To begin with, you must embrace a heart-healthy lifestyle, incorporating:

  • Having a diet with low sodium and saturated fat and plentiful fruits and vegetables
  • Keeping a healthy weight – obesity is considered a risk factor for atrial fibrillation accompanied by other heart diseases
  • Coping with stress
  • Working out several times a week
  • Quitting smoking 
  • Looking for help in aid of alcohol or drug addiction
  • Keeping away from stimulating substance like caffeine, which can augment your heart rate

The other way to prevent strokes is anticoagulants (blood thinners). If your atrial fibrillation is of low risk, your healthcare provider may suggest you take an aspirin every day. But the majority of people require potent anticoagulants to protect their blood from clotting in periods of atrial fibrillation and thwart strokes.

Over and above preventing strokes, whether you require your heart rate and rhythm controlled is the other question regarding treatment you should discuss with your healthcare provider. It is important to retrieve your normal heart rate as it permits the ventricles enough time to load with blood entirely. Your heart rhythm can still be abnormal, but you may feel recovered with fewer symptoms and a slower heart rate. There are different kinds of medications that may be prescribed by your healthcare provider to treat the quick heart rate linked to atrial fibrillation.

How to prevent atrial fibrillation

Causes, treatment, and prevention of atrial fibrillation (AFib)

Keeping a heart-healthy lifestyle is the most effective way to prevent the inception of atrial fibrillation. It includes:

  • Having a diet with low sodium and saturated fat and plentiful fruits and vegetables
  • Keeping a healthy weight 
  • Coping with stress
  • Working out several times a week
  • Quitting smoking 
  • Looking for help in aid of alcohol or drug addiction
  • Managing your blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, and any prevailing heart disease

If you are already affected by atrial fibrillation, the best way you can stop complications due to your AFib is to abide by your healthcare provider’s instructions on medication. Keep up open communication lines with your healthcare provider and update him or her about any new or exacerbating symptoms. 

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