AFib: When an irregular heart rhythm should cause concern

March 13, 2023
Jennifer Romero, NP, Primary Care, attending to a patient in the Express Clinic at St. Elizabeth Hospital, Fort Morgan Colorado

As children, many of us liked to play doctor and listen to the sound of someone’s heart − the steady bump, bump, bump sound was fascinating to our curious minds. But what happens when that steady heart rhythm becomes erratic? For some people, they may have atrial fibrillation (AFib), which affects at least 2.7 million Americans.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal rhythm of the upper chambers of the heart causing electrical impulses traveling to the bottom part of the heart to create an irregular and/or fast heart rhythm. This irregular rhythm can cause symptoms, which may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest discomfort
  • Dizziness at times
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Fluid accumulation in the lungs

This arrhythmia is generally not life-threatening, but it carries with it a higher risk of stroke, and many patients need to take anticoagulants, medications that prevents the blood from clotting, as part of their treatment.

Who is at higher risk for AFib?

Typically, people who have one or more of the following conditions are at higher risk for AFib:

  • Advanced age
  • High blood pressure
  • Underlying heart disease
  • Drinking alcohol; binge drinking (having five drinks in two hours for men, or four drinks for women)
  • Family history
  • Sleep apnea
  • Other chronic conditions such as thyroid problems (specifically hyperthyroidism), diabetes, asthma and other chronic medical problems

Atrial fibrillation treatment options

The goal of treating atrial fibrillation is to prevent the formation of blood clots, control the number of times per minute the ventricles contract (rate control), restore a normal heart rhythm (rhythm control), and treat any underlying condition that may be contributing to AFib, such as hypertension, hyperthyroidism, sleep apnea and obesity.

The severity, any other underlying medical issues someone may have, and the length of the AFib condition will determine the best treatment options for them. Treatments options include medication therapy, as well as nonsurgical and surgical procedures.

*Source: American Heart Association