What is AFib?

When your heart is working correctly, it contracts and relaxes in a regular rhythm. If your heartbeat speeds up or becomes irregular, you may be experiencing atrial fibrillation, says Justin Partin, an advanced practice nurse at Washington Regional Cardiovascular Clinic, part of the Washington Regional Walker Heart Institute.

"Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular heart rate in which the atria, or top chambers of the heart, and the ventricles, or lower chambers of the heart, are not beating in synch," Partin explains. "The atria chambers are actually beating in a much more rapid rate than the ventricles."

Because an irregular heartbeat is not very effective in moving blood into the ventricles, blood can pool in the atria and form a clot. If the clot breaks off and travels through the bloodstream to the brain, it can cause a stroke. AFib patients are often prescribed blood-thinning medications for this reason.

AFib treatments can vary, however, because AFib causes can vary. They include infection, lung disease, sleep apnea, valvular heart disease and hyperthyroidism. But the number one risk factor for AFib is age. "About 9% of people over the age of 65 have atrial fibrillation," Partin says. In addition to medication, AFib treatment options include lifestyle modifications and cardiac procedures.

Partin says common signs and symptoms of AFib are:

  • Palpitations
  • Fluttering
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness

"We've actually had AFib patients tell us that it feels like a fish is flopping in their chest," he says.

If you are experiencing any symptoms you think may be AFib, Partin says, talk to your primary care provider or a cardiologist. Diagnostic testing may include an electrocardiogram or a complete electrophysiology study.

For more information or to make an appointment at Washington Regional Cardiovascular Clinic, click here.