What do I need to know?

Atrial fibrillation is a common condition that causes the heart to beat abnormally, which can give patients the feeling that their heart is erratic and chaotic.

When atrial fibrillation is diagnosed, treatment and lifestyle improvement are essential to reduce the risk of other heart-related problems such as stroke and heart failure.


How common is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disorder. It affects adults of any age, however, it is much more common in older people and is more common among men than women. People with other heart conditions are more likely to develop atrial fibrillation, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes, atherosclerosis (where the arteries are clogged with cholesterol) or heart valve diseases.


Who is at higher risk for atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is associated with conditions that damage the structure of the heart. People with high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, heart defects, heart failure or heart valve disease, rheumatic heart disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, lung disease, kidney disease, sleep apnoea and family history of atrial fibrillation have a higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

A lifestyle that includes alcohol misuse, obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, stress and abuse of stimulants (including caffeine) can also increase risks.

Having said that, atrial fibrillation may also occur in younger people with healthy hearts and no other medical conditions. It can even occur in athletes!


How does it feel to have atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation does not manifest itself in the same way in all people. Symptoms and the frequency at which they occur can vary greatly. It is also possible for a person to have no symptoms and atrial fibrillation to be discovered by chance during a routine check-up.

The most obvious symptom of atrial fibrillation is heart palpitations (an unpleasant awareness of the heartbeat), which usually exceed 100 beats per minute and are chaotic and irregular. In addition, tiredness, shortness of breath, breathlessness, feeling faint or lightheaded, dizziness, chest pain and nausea are also common symptoms.


Why is atrial fibrillation dangerous?

People with atrial fibrillation have a 4 to 5 times greater risk of having a stroke. However, the risks are heavily influenced by other factors, including age, gender, blood pressure, diabetes, heart failure and a history of blood clots or strokes.

When atrial fibrillation is persistent (present all the time) and the heart rate is constantly faster than 100 beats per minute, it can lead to heart failure when the heart muscle weakens and is unable to pump blood efficiently through the body.


Can atrial fibrillation return?

It is possible to have only one isolated episode of atrial fibrillation. However, depending on the cause, atrial fibrillation can come and go intermittently or persist and may require lifelong treatment. When atrial fibrillation occurs because of a temporary condition that can be treated, it’s less likely to recur. Long-term conditions that cause atrial fibrillation increase the chances of it returning. As time goes by it tends to occur more often and last longer.


Is atrial fibrillation hereditary?

Although not a common situation, atrial fibrillation can run in the family and when this happens it is called familial atrial fibrillation. The cause is still unknown and further studies are needed to clarify the factors associated with familial atrial fibrillation.

If you have close relatives with atrial fibrillation and are worried you may develop the condition then you should discuss this with your doctor who can identify risk factors and help you get treated.