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What Is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)?

Atrial fibrillation, or A-Fib, occurs when the heart's natural, regular electrical impulses are replaced with a very rapid, disorganized electrical pattern in the top two chambers of the heart. It is the most common form of arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rhythm. As a result of this irregularity, blood tends to pool in these top two reservoir chambers (the atria), and the bottom pumping chambers (the ventricles) are driven to beat in a faster, irregular pattern. The rapid and disorganized rhythm of A-Fib affect the heart's ability to function efficiently, and can even result in up to a 20 to 30 percent decrease in blood flow in some cases.

Treatment at Penn

Treatments for atrial fibrillation aim to reduce the erratic heartbeat impulses and restore a normal heart rate. A successful treatment will reduce symptoms of A-Fib and improve the patient's quality of life, but some patients may still experience limitations in conjunction with their treatment. Options for treatment include:

  • Daily medications
  • Cardioversion
  • Catheter ablation
  • Pacemakers
  • Surgical ablation (rare)

Some types of medication may control the symptoms of A-Fib and restore a normal ventricular heart rate, but they do not eliminate A-Fib. Other medications, called "antiarrhythmics" are used to affect the heart's electrical system and may be able to keep the heart out of A-Fib. Anticoagulants are a common treatment because they thin the blood and reduce the risk of the development of blood clots that can lead to a stroke.

Doctors may prescribe beta blockers or calcium-channel blockers to slow the heart rate, or they may prescribe other medications for a one-time cardioversion treatment. This treatment may chemically convert the patient's heart back to a normal rhythm. Cardioversion may also be administered electrically through an energy shock while the patient is given brief anesthesia.

Penn Programs & Services for Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)

Cardiac Arrhythmia

Internationally recognized program for diagnosing, treating and researching cardiac arrhythmias

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