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AFib: Answers to 5 questions about this common heart problem

AFib increases the risk for stroke by five times. Get answers to the most-asked questions about this common heart problem.

Becky Frusher
August 28, 2023
AFib, a common heart problem, affects millions of people every year.

AFib, or atrial fibrillation, is the most common type of heart arrhythmia. People who have AFib are at increased risk for blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other health concerns. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association predict that more than 12 million Americans will have AFib in 2030. If you know someone who’s been diagnosed with AFib or suspect that you or a loved one may have it, keep reading. We’re sharing expert answers to five of the most-searched questions about AFib.

What is AFib and what does it feel like to have it?

AFib is a type of arrhythmia that causes a quivering or irregular heartbeat. An arrhythmia is a problem with the heart’s electrical system and can cause the heart to beat too fast, too slow or irregularly. AFib originates in the upper chambers of the heart — the atria — and leaves them unable to pump oxygenated blood out effectively. Instead, blood can pool in the area and clot, making the likelihood of having a stroke five times greater.

The most common symptom of AFib is a quivering or fluttering heartbeat. Other common symptoms include:

  • Fast, irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath and anxiety
  • General fatigue/fatigue when exercising
  • Dizziness, faintness, confusion, weakness
  • Sweating
  • Chest pain or pressure

Some people with AFib have no symptoms, which is why it’s important to have your heart checked regularly, even if you think nothing is wrong.

If you think someone is having a life-threatening medical emergency, always call 911.

How is AFib diagnosed?

“Although AFib may often go undetected, especially in women, it can easily be diagnosed with an electrocardiogram (ECG), or a wearable or implantable heart monitor,” says Dr. Steven Manoukian, HCA Healthcare senior vice president and Fellow of the American Heart Association.

Testing for AFib is safe, painless and typically includes:

  • Physical exam and health history
  • Electrocardiogram

Your doctor may also order an electrophysiology study to determine the cause of your abnormal heart rhythm. This can help your doctor identify the best treatment options for you, which may include medications and/or nonsurgical or surgical procedures.

Visit the American Heart Association’s website for a downloadable, “Partnering in Your Treatment” sheet that can help you discuss your heart health and options with your doctor.

Can AFib go away?

AFib doesn’t generally go away on its own, but there is one type of AFib, called paroxysmal fibrillation, in which the heart can return to a normal rhythm (on its own or with medical intervention) within seven days of the abnormality. Symptoms may occur only a few times a year, but they can be unpredictable and can often lead to a permanent form of AFib.

While most types of AFib are permanent, there are treatment options.

“AFib can be treated with blood thinners, medications which regulate the heart rhythm, or with procedures which eliminate the arrhythmia or reduce your risk of stroke,” Dr. Manoukian says.

Who gets AFib?

People at higher risk for AFib include those with one or more of the following conditions:

  • Advancing age (AFib rarely occurs in children)
  • Alcohol use (moderate to heavy, binge drinking)
  • Athletes
  • Family history of AFib
  • High blood pressure (a leading cause)
  • Obesity
  • Sleep apnea
  • Smoking
  • Underlying heart disease and other chronic conditions, such as diabetes and hyperthyroidism

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with AFib, visit the American Heart Association’s online peer group and community for people living with atrial fibrillation, My AFib Experience.

Are AFib and SVT the same?

While AFib and SVT, or supraventricular tachycardia, are both arrhythmias with overlapping symptoms and risk factors, they are different conditions.

A tachycardia is a faster than normal heart rate, which prevents the heart’s chambers from filling up completely between contractions.

Unlike AFib, children are among the most likely to have SVT, which is the most common type of arrhythmia in kids. Young people with anxiety are also at risk for SVT, as are women (more so than men) and those who are middle-aged and older.

An additional risk factor is taking over-the-counter cough and cold medications or prescription medications that can cause an SVT episode.

If you’re concerned about medications that you or your child are taking and how they may affect the heart, talk to your doctor.

Our broader network, HCA Healthcare, and the HCA Healthcare Foundation are supporting and collaborating with the American Heart Association on its unique, national initiative called Getting to the Heart of Stroke™. This initiative is educating communities and healthcare providers on how to better diagnose and treat patients with stroke, especially those who have AFib, in order to improve patient outcomes.

August 28, 2023

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