Your heart is amazing. It is a muscle that beats regularly every minute of each day, keeping you alive.

But sometimes that beating is not as regular as it should be. An irregular heartbeat is common. In fact, about three million people each year may be diagnosed with what is known as a heart rhythm disorder.

One of the most common rhythm disorders is atrial fibrillation, or AFib for short. It is a serious condition that requires medical care.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Your heart runs on a kind of electrical system that makes it beat. When that system does not signal the heart correctly, it can cause an irregular heartbeat. With AFib, there is an abnormal electrical signal in the top chambers of the heart, known as the atria.

How serious is AFib?

AFib itself is not life-threatening. If left untreated, however, the irregular heartbeat can cause serious complications. Those include:

  • increased risk of blood clots, which can lead to stroke
  • damage to the function of the heart
  • congestive heart failure

The signs of AFib

Sometimes, people with AFib have no signs of their condition. If you experience a feeling like your heart is racing for a period of time, it could be a sign of atrial fibrillation. Other signs may include:

  • pain in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness

These could be signs of AFib or other serious conditions. If you experience any of those symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention quickly.

Risk Factors for AFib

A variety of conditions may increase your risk for atrial fibrillation. Those include:

  • heart valve issues 
  • heart defects you may be born with
  • family history of atrial fibrillation

Other factors that can contribute to AFib development include:

These conditions, however, can often be managed through lifestyle changes and weight management. Learn more about seven steps to a healthier heart.

Treating AFib

  • Medications: With an irregular heartbeat, blood cannot flow as freely as it should throughout your body. As a result, this increases the chances of a blood clot. This increased stroke risk is often treated with blood thinning medications, known as anticoagulants. If you are taking anticoagulants like Warfarin or Coumadin, regular blood monitoring is necessary. Also, these medications cause a bleeding risk, so anyone taking these should be careful to avoid cuts or injuries.
  • WATCHMAN Implantable Device: While blood thinners reduce the risk of stroke, they also have the potential to cause excessive bleeding. That is why implantable devices may be a better option for some patients. One device, approved by the FDA in 2015, is the WATCHMAN. This implant is placed permanently using a catheter-based procedure. This can help to prevent clots from forming to protect patients with atrial fibrillation from strokes without the long-term use of blood thinners. You can learn more about other innovative procedures here.
  • VOLTA VX1 for drug-resistant atrial fibrillation: For patients with a type of AFib known as drug-resistant atrial fibrillation, an electrophysiologist (a specialized cardiologist) may perform a procedure known as catheter ablation. The procedure creates scarring that restores a normal heartbeat. The new VOLTA VX1 system uses artificial intelligence-based software designed to help identify the heart’s abnormalities during catheter ablation treatment. The Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute was the first in the region to enroll patients in a trial for this new treatment. We are finding VX1 to be a valuable tool in our ablation procedures because it enables us to precisely pinpoint the best location for each patient, potentially resulting in better treatment outcomes.  

Any heart condition is a concern. The good news is that AFib can be treated so you can continue to enjoy life.

If you have AFib or are experiencing symptoms, be sure to seek the advice of medical experts who specialize in atrial fibrillation, including cardiologists and cardiac electrophysiologists. Learn more about our team at the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute and how we can help you here.

Electrophysiology and Heart Rhythm Disturbances Team

The Electrophysiology and Heart Rhythm Disturbances Team at the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute is the most experienced and comprehensive center for arrhythmia services in Rhode Island offering advanced consultation and therapies that span the spectrum of heart rhythm disorders.