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Are you worried about a fluttering feeling in your chest? Are you feeling palpitations or an irregular heartbeat?
This feeling could be a medical condition called atrial fibrillation.
Keep reading to learn about what atrial fibrillation is and what the risk factors for atrial fibrillation are.
What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation, or afib, is a medical condition that causes an irregular heart rate. The heart rate in an afib patient may also be tachycardic, or fast.
A normal heartbeat ranges from 60 beats per minute to 100 beats per minute, while a patient with atrial fibrillation could have a heartbeat that ranges from 100 beats per minute to 175 beats per minute.
Atrial fibrillation occurs when the two upper chambers of the heart, which are known as the atria, beat out of rhythm with the two lower chambers of the heart, which are known as the ventricles. This discoordination of the heart is due to a mismatch in electrical signaling to the heart.
The electrical signal in the heart starts at a place in the right atrium known as the sinoatrial, or SA, node. This signal then travels down to the atrioventricular, or AV, node between the atria (upper chambers) and ventricles (lower chambers). From there, the electrical signal goes between the ventricles via bundle branches and then around the outside of the heart through Purkinje fibers.
The heartbeat starts in the sinoatrial node, where cells known as pacemaker cells set your heart rate. With atrial fibrillation, the signals from the pacemaker cells in the atria are scattered. Because of this, the atrioventricular nodes are receiving fast messages from the atria to the ventricles.
The inconsistent, fast signals from the SA node cause chaotic responses in the AV node. This causes the ventricles of the heart to beat faster than the atria.
This condition can be very serious, even life-threatening.
How is afib diagnosed? Let’s look at the important things to know about recognizing afib.
What Are the Risk Factors for Atrial Fibrillation?
There are many factors that could be putting you at a greater risk for developing atrial fibrillation.
You’re more likely to develop atrial fibrillation if you’re older. Research shows that there is a notable prevalence of atrial fibrillation in populations aged 65 or older.
Patients with heart disease are also more likely to be at risk for developing atrial fibrillation. These problems can include congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure, and heart valve problems. Those who have also previously had a heart attack or heart surgery are at an increased risk as well as those who have a family history of afib.
Those who have hypertension, or high blood pressure, are more at risk to develop afib as well. You are even more at risk if your blood pressure is not well-controlled.
It is also important to note that obesity and poor diet or a diet that consists of alcohol can contribute to a higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation.
Other chronic health conditions can also lend to increasing your risk of atrial fibrillation. These health conditions can include metabolic syndromes, diabetes, lung diseases, chronic kidney diseases, sleep apnea, and thyroid problems. This is a long list, but keep in mind that this is not a complete list.
If you have any of these risk factors, it is important to be seen by your doctor regularly. We do recommend regular checkups regardless, but it is even more crucial if you have these risk factors since they put you at risk for atrial fibrillation and other diseases.
Is Atrial Fibrillation Dangerous?
Atrial fibrillation can lead to a couple of extremely dangerous complications.
Atrial fibrillation increases your risk of having a stroke. The irregular rhythm that happens in patients with afib may cause blood to build up in the atria of your heart. This can lead to blood clots that could dislodge from your heart and may their way to your brain.
If your brain loses blood flow for even a second, there could be permanent damage. This is why physicians place patients with atrial fibrillation on anti-coagulants which are more popularly known as blood thinners.
Because of the affect that atrial fibrillation could have on the brain, patients may also experience cognitive problems. This includes a higher risk for dementia and other cognitive difficulties, especially those pertaining to memory and movement.
Patients with afib are also at an increased risk for developing heart failure, a medical condition that is categorized by the inability of the body to circulate enough blood for its needs. Atrial fibrillation weakens the heart over time because of the spastic and inconsistent movements. The weaker your heart gets, the more likely you are to have heart failure.
These conditions are extremely dangerous and can lead to major complications, which do include death.
How Can I Prevent Atrial Fibrillation?
Preventing atrial fibrillation is similar to preventing other chronic illnesses.
You must have a healthy lifestyle that promotes heart health. This includes having a healthy diet and an exercise routine as well as avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol.
Preventing a condition like afib could save your life.
When Should I See a Doctor?
As with everyone, we recommend that you see your primary care provider for a yearly checkup as well as your specialists regularly. If you are experiencing symptoms of atrial fibrillation, you should make an appointment with your primary care provider.
If you’re having some discomfort or are unable to see your primary care physician any time soon, go to your closest Urgent Care. If you’re experiencing any chest pain, go to the emergency room.
Atrial fibrillation is a dangerous condition that your doctor will be able to recognize with a stethoscope even if you aren’t having symptoms. It is also important to tell your physicians if you have any risk factors for atrial fibrillation. You should also mention if you have any chronic conditions or family history.
You should see a physician immediately if you’re having any concerning symptoms.
For more answers to your health questions, check out our collection of medical blogs.