First Time User? Enroll now.
Visiting hours have changed as a result of COVID-19. Learn more. Testing information is available. Learn more.
Home > Wellness > Health Library > Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation (say "AY-tree-uhl fih-bruh-LAY-shun") is a common type of irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Normally, the heart beats in a strong, steady rhythm. In atrial fibrillation, a problem with the heart's electrical system causes the two upper chambers of the heart (called the atria) to quiver, or fibrillate.
Atrial fibrillation can be dangerous. This is because if the heartbeat isn't strong and steady, blood can collect, or pool, in the atria. And pooled blood is more likely to form clots. Clots can travel to the brain, block blood flow, and cause a stroke. Atrial fibrillation can also lead to heart failure.
This condition also upsets the normal rhythm between the atria and the lower chambers of the heart. (These chambers are called the ventricles.) The ventricles may beat fast and without a regular rhythm.
Atrial fibrillation is caused by health problems that damage or strain the heart and its electrical system. These problems include high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and heart failure. Other causes include heart surgery, lung disease, or an overactive thyroid gland.
Some people feel symptoms when they have episodes of atrial fibrillation. But other people don't notice any symptoms. There are a few different symptoms, such as feeling dizzy, tired, or short of breath. Some people feel a fluttering, racing, or pounding feeling in their chest (called palpitations).
To see if you have atrial fibrillation, you will have an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). An EKG is a test that checks for problems with the heart's electrical activity. Your doctor will do a physical exam. You may have other tests that check the health of your heart.
Treatments can help you feel better and prevent future problems, especially stroke and heart failure.
Your treatment will depend on the cause of your atrial fibrillation, your symptoms, and your risk for stroke. Types of treatment include:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Atrial fibrillation is caused by a problem with the heart's electrical system. When something goes wrong with this system, it's usually because of other health problems that are causing wear and tear on the heart or making it hard for the heart to do its job.
Conditions that damage or strain the heart are the most common causes of atrial fibrillation. These include:
Other possible causes include:
In some cases, doctors can't find the cause of atrial fibrillation.
A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of getting sick or having a problem. Risk factors for atrial fibrillation include:
You may have certain habits that increase your risk for atrial fibrillation because they can cause wear and tear on your heart. These lifestyle choices include:
Some people feel symptoms when they have episodes of atrial fibrillation. But other people don't notice any symptoms.
If you have symptoms, you may feel:
You may notice signs of atrial fibrillation when you check your pulse. Your pulse may seem uneven or fast.
At first, spells of atrial fibrillation may come on suddenly and last a short time. It may go away on its own or with treatment. Over time, the spells may last longer and occur more often. They often don't go away on their own. During these spells, you may feel symptoms such as palpitations, dizziness, or weakness.
Atrial fibrillation can be dangerous because if the heartbeat isn't strong and steady, blood can collect, or pool, in your heart. And pooled blood is more likely to form clots. Clots can travel to the brain, block blood flow, and cause a stroke. A fast, uncontrolled heartbeat also increases your risk for heart failure.
Treating atrial fibrillation is important, because treatment can relieve symptoms and lower your risk of stroke and heart failure.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you:
If you see someone pass out, call 911 or other emergency services immediately.
Call your doctor if you have:
If you take blood-thinning medicine, watch for signs of bleeding.
Call your doctor now if you have any unusual bleeding, such as:
To see if you have atrial fibrillation, you will have an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). An EKG is a test that checks for problems with the heart's electrical activity.
Your doctor will probably ask questions about your past health and do a physical exam.
Other tests your doctor may recommend include:
Treatments for atrial fibrillation can help you feel better and prevent future problems, especially stroke and heart failure. Your treatment will depend on the cause of your atrial fibrillation, your symptoms, and your risk for stroke.
The main types of treatment will:
You can also help manage atrial fibrillation by having a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Atrial fibrillation caused by a condition that is treatable, such as pneumonia or hyperthyroidism, often goes away when that condition is treated.
Rate-control medicines are used if your heart rate is too fast. They usually don't return your heart to a normal rhythm, so your heartbeat will still be irregular. But these medicines can keep your heart from beating at a dangerously fast rate.
These medicines may also relieve symptoms.
Treatment to control your heart rhythm is done to try to stop atrial fibrillation and keep it from returning. It may also help your symptoms. Treatments include:
This procedure, which is done with a thin tube called a catheter, destroys tiny areas in the heart that cause atrial fibrillation. Ablation can relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
AV node ablation is another type of catheter ablation. It does not stop atrial fibrillation, but it can relieve symptoms.
Your doctor can help you know your risk of a stroke based on your age and health. This information can help you and your doctor decide how to lower your risk.
You can live well and help manage atrial fibrillation by having a heart-healthy lifestyle.
A heart-healthy lifestyle includes healthy eating, losing weight, being active, and not smoking.
These healthy habits may help reduce how often you have episodes of atrial fibrillation. If you are overweight, losing weight can help relieve symptoms.
Many people are able to live full and active lives with atrial fibrillation. Most people don't have to change their daily activities.
You can live well and help manage atrial fibrillation by having a heart-healthy lifestyle, taking medicine properly, and managing other health problems. You can work with your doctor to help manage your symptoms.
Because atrial fibrillation is often the result of a heart condition, making changes to improve your heart condition will usually improve your overall health.
A heart-healthy lifestyle may help reduce how often you have episodes of atrial fibrillation. If you are overweight, losing weight can help relieve symptoms.
To have a heart-healthy lifestyle:
Taking medicine can help you feel better and prevent future problems.
Manage other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
Know the signs of sleep apnea. Tell your doctor if you have symptoms such as snoring and feeling sleepy during the day. Many people with atrial fibrillation also have sleep apnea.
Avoid infections such as COVID-19, colds, and the flu. Get the flu vaccine every year. Get a pneumococcal vaccine. If you have had one before, ask your doctor whether you need another dose. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.
Treatments for atrial fibrillation can relieve symptoms. But managing symptoms, or episodes, can be easier for some people than others. That's because some people only have mild symptoms, and they learn how to deal with them. But other people can struggle and they feel like their episodes are controlling their lives.
Work with your doctor to treat your symptoms. Tell your doctor how symptoms affect your life. Your doctor can help you find ways to manage episodes.
There are a few things you can try. They include:
If you have atrial fibrillation, you may take medicine to help prevent a stroke. You may also take medicine that slows your heart rate or controls your heart rhythm.
Anticoagulant medicines, also called blood thinners, are recommended for most people with atrial fibrillation who are at average to high risk of stroke.
If you are at low risk of having a stroke, you may choose to not take an anticoagulant.
Anticoagulant choices include:
Rate-control medicines are used if your heart rate is too fast. The medicine slows your heart rate. Your heart rate may not need to be very low. A heart rate of 110 beats per minute may be enough to help you.
These medicines include:
Rate-control medicines may relieve symptoms caused by the fast heart rate. But these medicines may not relieve other symptoms caused by atrial fibrillation.
Rhythm-control medicines (also known as antiarrhythmics) help return the heart to its normal rhythm and keep atrial fibrillation from returning. They may help relieve symptoms caused by an irregular heart rate.
Current as of:
January 10, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Rakesh K. Pai MD, FACC - Cardiology, ElectrophysiologyE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineJohn M. Miller MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Current as of: January 10, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Rakesh K. Pai MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & John M. Miller MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
208 Cox Blvd.
Goldsboro, NC 27534
1001 Innovation Way
Kinston, NC 28504
2615 Hospital Road; Suite 300
Goldsboro, NC 27534
2615 Hospital Road
Goldsboro, NC 27534
2707 Medical Office Place
Goldsboro, NC 27534