What is AF?
Atrial Fibrillation, frequently referred to as AF, is a disorder of the heart in which the organized and regular electrical signals of the upper two chambers of the heart (the atria) are turned into unorganized and chaotic electrical activity. Normally these electrical signals result in a regular and efficient contraction of the atria and the lower two chambers of the heart (the ventricles). AF disrupts this normal pattern of electrical activity and contraction throughout the heart. The atria simply quiver (fibrillate) instead of providing a regular contraction and movement of blood into the ventricles. AF can cause some of the blood to pool in the atria and it will also cause the ventricles to respond with an irregular heart beat and inefficient movement of blood out into the body.
These changes in the normal electrical pattern and resulting inefficiency of contraction lead to the most common symptoms of AF:
- Rapid and irregular heart rate
- Palpitations or a sensation that your heart is skipping, fluttering, or pounding
- Feeling light-headed, dizzy, or faint
- Feeling tired or unable to complete normal daily activities
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or a tightness or discomfort in the chest
- A sensation of not feeling right
Some patients feel no symptoms at all and AF is diagnosed during a routine physical examination or a doctor's visit for another problem. Others have one or more of these symptoms as a first sign of AF. If you have symptoms of AF without chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, or fainting, call your physician right away. If you have symptoms with chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, or fainting, call 911.
Since some of the blood pools in the atria during AF, it is possible for blood clots to form, travel to the brain, and cause a stroke. This is a very serious and perhaps deadly outcome of AF. Sometimes patients do not have symptoms of AF but rather first have symptoms of a stroke that is caused by the AF. Seek immediate medical assistance if you have any symptoms of a stroke:
- Weakness or numbness in the face, arms, or legs, perhaps only on one side of the body
- Difficulty seeing
- Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- Severe and sudden headache
- Dizziness, loss of balance, or falling for no apparent reason