Heart Rhythm Center

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a condition that causes an irregular or rapid heart rate, which can result in poor blood circulation. During an episode of atrial fibrillation, your heart’s two upper chambers will start to beat irregularly, bringing them out of sync with the other two lower chambers. Some of the most common symptoms will include shortness of breath, heart palpitations and general weakness.

In some cases, episodes of atrial fibrillation will come and go. In others, it will happen continuously. Although this condition isn’t usually life-threatening, it is still a serious medical condition that should be properly addressed and treated by a trusted medical professional. If you have experienced symptoms of atrial fibrillation, we encourage you to visit our ER or hospital in San Jose, CA.

There are Three Types of Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation can either be classified as paroxysmal, persistent or permanent.

  • Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation: this is when atrial fibrillation occurs occasionally, then stops. In this case, the atrial fibrillation will stop by itself, and the heart will return to normal. Depending on the case, the atrial fibrillation could last for seconds, minutes, hours or days.
  • Persistent atrial fibrillation: this is when your body is unable to stop atrial fibrillation on its own. In these cases, medication or a special type of electric shock may be necessary to help your heart rate return to normal—which is why you shouldn’t delay in seeing a doctor.
  • Permanent atrial fibrillation: this is when atrial fibrillation cannot be stopped, even with the use of medication or controlled electric shock. If these remedies have failed to return the heart to its normal rhythm, you could remain in a state of atrial fibrillation indefinitely.

What are the Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?

In many cases, people with atrial fibrillation will not even realize that they have this condition until it is discovered during a physical exam. Most of the time, there will be no symptoms. In cases where atrial fibrillation comes and goes, however, the person may experience a change in heart rate.

Those who do have symptoms of atrial fibrillation may experience:

  • A decrease in blood pressure
  • General weakness or fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Trouble breathing / shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or heart palpitations

If atrial fibrillation is not properly treated, you run the risk of suffering a stroke or even heart failure. Since this condition causes your heart to beat at a chaotic rhythm, it can cause the blood to pool in your heart’s upper chambers and form clots. This could result in a stroke or restricted blood flow.

What Causes Atrial Fibrillation?

The most common cause of atrial fibrillation is abnormalities or damage to the heart’s structure. Other possible causes include heart attacks, high blood pressure, congenital heart defects, abnormal heart valves, viral infections, emphysema or other lunge diseases, stimulant exposure (i.e. cigarettes or caffeine), sleep apnea, stress caused by pneumonia, an overactive thyroid gland, and more.

Some of the possible risk factors for atrial fibrillation include:

  • Age: your risk of developing AF is increased as you get older
  • Heart disease: if you have a history of heart disease, you are at risk
  • High blood pressure: uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risks
  • Alcohol consumption: sometimes, drinking alcohol can trigger an episode
  • Family history: if AF runs in your family, you may have a greater risk

How to Prepare for Your Appointment

If you think that you could be experiencing symptoms of atrial fibrillation, it is critical that you schedule an appointment with your doctor. The earlier it is found, the easier it will be to treat. Here is some information to help you get ready for your appointment with our hospital in San Jose:

  • Ask about any pre-appointment restrictions (i.e. dietary intake)
  • Write down all of the symptoms that you have experienced
  • Gather key personal information (i.e. family history of heart disease)
  • Make a list of any medications that you are currently taking
  • Bring a family member or friend along to your appointment
  • Write down any questions that you would like to ask your doctor

Once you meet with your doctor, it may be helpful to ask questions like:

  • What could have caused my symptoms or condition?
  • What is the best form of treatment for atrial fibrillation?
  • What kinds of tests will be needed, if any?
  • How often should I be screened for heart disease?
  • Are there any restrictions I will need to follow?
  • What types of food should I eat or avoid eating?

Tests That May Be Need to Diagnose Atrial Fibrillation

If your doctor suspects that you could be experiencing atrial fibrillation, they may ask you participate in one of more of the following tests in order to properly diagnose your condition:

  • Holter monitor: this is a portable machine that records your heartbeats. You will wear it underneath your clothing for a day or two, and push a button if you feel any symptoms.
  • Electrocardiogram: this is a non-invasive test that will measure electrical impulses given off by your heart by attaching patches with wires (electrodes) to the surface of your skin.
  • Echocardiogram: this is a non-invasive test that will produce a video image of your heart through sound waves. Sound waves will be directed at your heart from a wand-like device.
  • Blood tests: this may help your doctor rule out certain conditions, like thyroid problems, or other substances in your blood that could be leading to atrial fibrillation.
  • Chest X-ray: this will help your doctor see the condition of your heart and lungs. A chest X-ray could also be used to diagnose other conditions that may be causing your symptoms.

Treatment Options for Atrial Fibrillation

When treating atrial fibrillation, the strategy that your doctor chooses will depend on whether or not you are currently experiencing symptoms, how long you have been in atrial fibrillation, whether or not you can take medications, your overall health and the size and function of your heart’s chambers.

In any case, the goals of treating this condition are to:

  • Bring your heart rate under control
  • Reset your heart rhythm back to normal
  • Prevent blood clots from developing

In most cases, the first course of action will be to administer medication that can slow your heart rate. Your doctor may also prescribe blood thinners that will help prevent blood clots. Some of these medications can also reset your heart rate back to its normal rhythm. When medication is not effective, procedures like electrical cardioversion and cardiac catheter ablation may be necessary.

Preventing Atrial Fibrillation Through Lifestyle Choices

If you have experienced atrial fibrillation, or you are at risk, your doctor may suggest that you alter some of your lifestyle choices. This could not only improve your overall heath, but also help you treat certain conditions like high blood pressure. Some of the changes you can make include:

  • Exercising more frequently
  • Stop smoking cigarettes
  • Limit your alcohol consumption
  • Eat heart-healthy foods
  • Reduce your sodium intake

Contact Good Samaritan Hospital for More Information

Whether you have questions about atrial fibrillation or you would like to schedule an appointment with one of the doctors at Good Samaritan Hospital, we encourage you to give us a call at (408) 879-5900. We offer expert medical services from our hospital and emergency room in San Jose, CA.

For more information, you can also check out these educational resources:

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