What is atrial fibrillation? 

Published: Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Cardiology, Electrophysiology

At your latest appointment with the cardiologist, you were told that you have atrial fibrillation. What does that mean, and how will it affect your life? 

Atrial fibrillation, often called AFib, is a heart rhythm abnormality. AFib occurs when the heart’s upper chambers, or atria, are out of sync with the lower chambers of the heart. When this happens, the heart often beats irregularly and too fast, or sometimes too slowly.  

If youve been diagnosed with AFib, you are not alone. According to the American Heart Association, more than 12 million Americans are projected to have atrial fibrillation by 2030.  

What are the risks of AFib? 

The abnormal heart rhythms themselves aren’t necessarily dangerous. If you have AFib, you may experience lightheadedness, fatigue, shortness of breath and chest pain. These symptoms can be troubling and even uncomfortable, but the real danger of AFib isn’t related to the symptoms.  

Those who have atrial fibrillation that is untreated are at a higher risk of experiencing stroke and certain heart problems, including heart failure. The risk of stroke is three to five times higher in those who do not have atrial fibrillation. 

How is AFib connected to stroke? 

  • When you experience an episode of AFib, the heart beats erratically. This disrupts the heart’s contractions, which pump blood.  
  • The disruption means that blood pools in the atria of the heart, its two upper chambers.  
  • That pooling blood, in turn, increases the risk of clots, which can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. 

Because of the increased risk of stroke, it’s important that AFib be treated effectively. 

Can AFib be cured? 

While AFib can’t be cured, many treatment options offer a long-term or even seemingly permanent fix. 

In some cases, fleeting episodes of AFib will go away without treatment. In most cases, though, treatment is required to manage the condition. 

Treatment may include medications, including drugs that help control heart rhythm and blood thinners to prevent clots. A variety of procedures can help restore a normal heart rhythm and prevent future AFib episodes. 

Procedures include: 

  • Catheter ablation, which destroys the tissue in the heart that causes the arrhythmia. 
  • Closure of the left atrial appendage, which is done by implanting a WATCHMAN or Amulet device into the left atrial appendage. 
  • Cardioversion, which uses electrical shocks to restore your heart rhythm. 
  • Surgical Maze ablation, in which a heart surgeon creates a maze of scar tissue performed in the upper chambers of the heart to interfere with the electrical pulses causing AFib. 

Your medical providers will be able to recommend a specific treatment plan for AFib based on your symptoms and the severity of the condition, along with other factors.  

At Georgia Heart Institute, you have access to comprehensive services for the treatment of atrial fibrillation, including options for patients who are of advanced age and those who cannot take blood thinners. Georgia Heart Institute physicians include electrophysiologists, who can diagnose and manage AFib and perform catheter ablation or implant the WATCHMAN or Amulet device through a vein in the leg, and heart surgeons who can perform the Maze procedure. 

The Georgia Heart Institute team will help you determine the right strategy for treating atrial fibrillation and guide you through your treatment and recovery. 

Joon Ahn, MD, is the director of the electrophysiology program at Georgia Heart Institute.