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Atrial Fibrillation: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention Methods

Doctor drawing a heart and heartbeat pattern on glass

Approximately 2.7 million Americans have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib). This common heart disorder occurs when electrical signals in the heart become irregular, causing the heart to beat out of rhythm and fast. The normal range for a heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute while the heart rate in atrial fibrillation may range from 100 to 175 beats per minute.

For many people, AFib can present as a sudden, uncomfortable feeling of their heart racing, but some people have subtle symptoms and are unaware of the Afib until they are diagnosed during an exam.

Causes and Symptoms

Causes of atrial fibrillation vary and range from existing heart problems to infections to chronic conditions like obesity and sleep apnea. Common risk factors and conditions that may cause AFib are:

  • Congenital heart defects (defects you are born with)
  • Heart attack, or a damaged heart muscle from a past heart attack
  • Heart valve diseases
  • Heart failure or coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Substances or drugs, including alcohol, caffeine, or stimulants

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation also vary. While the most common symptom is a fast or irregular heartbeat, some patients may experience lightheadedness, shortness of breath, lack of energy and chest pain.

During atrial fibrillation, the heart is unable to fully contract, causing blood to pool in the chambers of the heart. This lack of emptying not only puts more strain on the heart, but also increases the likelihood of blood clots forming. These blood clots can travel through the bloodstream to the brain, potentially causing a stroke. The biggest danger of atrial fibrillation is to leave it untreated.

Diagnosing AFib

If you experience symptoms of AFib, it is important to notify your primary care physician or cardiologist right away. It is likely that you will have an electrocardiogram (EKG) performed to get a better picture of your heart rhythm. If in fact you do have AFib, you will most likely be referred to a specialist that treats heart rhythm disorders called an electrophysiologist. Penn has a team of physicians that treat patients with atrial fibrillation. Our Cardiac Arrhythmia Program is one of the largest in the country and performs more than six times the national standard of AFib ablation procedures.

How you can defend against AFib

Since atrial fibrillation is often caused by conditions that cause damage or place extra strain on the heart, making simple lifestyle changes to improve your heart health may help protect against AFib.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.

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