Atrial Fibrillation (AF)
What is Atrial Fibrillation (AF)?
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is one of the most common sustained heart rhythm disorders or arrhythmias. In AF the electrical activity in the upper chambers of the heart (atria) become chaotic, leading to an irregular heartbeat that is often rapid. AF can also present itself as a very slow heart rate leading to fatigue and in some cases, pauses between beats can be prolonged and lead to dizzy spells. In the UK, AF affects around 800,000 people, and is most common in those over 55 years of age and in those patients with high blood pressure or other types of heart problems. Despite this, in some patients the cause of AF is not clear. When atrial activity is chaotic, blood flow through the heart is reduced, leading to stagnation and possible clot formation. The formation of these clots in patients with AF puts them at a significantly increased risk of a stroke. The risk of a stroke can be reduced with blood thinning drugs (anticoagulants).
What are the symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation (AF)?
Atrial fibrillation presents itself in many different ways. The most common symptoms are palpitations, which are often rapid and irregular. Patients may also feel tired, dizzy, short of breath or experience chest pains. In some patients, there are no symptoms and the discovery of AF is an incidental finding. Atrial fibrillation can lead to symptoms and can alter prognosis and therefore needs treatment to control and to reduce the risk of a stroke.
What assessment do I need if I have Atrial Fibrillation (AF)?
If atrial fibrillation is suspected, your cardiologist will need to confirm the diagnosis and this can be done with a simple electrocardiogram (ECG) if the rhythm is persistent. In many cases, atrial fibrillation comes and goes (paroxysmal) and in order to make the diagnosis, longer periods of ECG monitoring are needed with Ambulatory ECG Monitoring (a heart monitor which is worn for 1 or more days). An echocardiogram, referred to as an ‘echo’, is also undertaken to look at the structure and function of the heart in some detail. In many patients, additional tests will also be required to identify the underlying cause. One of the most important aspects of your assessment will be to assess your individual risk for a stroke to determine whether you will benefit from blood thinning medication (anticoagulants). Your cardiologist will be able to discuss this in some detail with you.
What are the treatments for Atrial Fibrillation (AF)?
There are a number of different approaches to the treatment of atrial fibrillation that can be tailored to your individual circumstances. All patients need an assessment of their stroke risk and placed on appropriate treatment as needed. There are essentially three strategies to treat AF – Medication, Cardioversion or Atrial Fibrillation (AF) Catheter Ablation. Click on the links below to find out more.