What is atrial fibrillation?
When the heart is healthy, regular electrical signals keep it beating at a steady rhythm (between 60 and 100 beats per minute). This is known as sinus rhythm. When a person has atrial fibrillation (AF), the electrical signals become erratic. This causes the top two chambers of the heart (the atria) to quiver and not work as effectively. The heart rate can then become irregular and it may beat faster than normal.
There are three types of AF:
- Paroxysmal AF – is intermittent and comes and goes. Episodes can last for minutes, hours or days but usually no longer than one week.
- Persistent AF – episodes last longer than a week at a time.
- Long-standing persistent or permanent AF – ongoing for more than a year.
Sometimes people with AF are aware that their heartbeat feels irregular or fast. However, you can have the condition and not notice any symptoms. This is called asymptomatic AF.
Anyone of any age can have AF but it is a much more common condition in older people. In Aotearoa, Māori and Pasifika people have a higher prevalence of AF, and at a younger age, than other ethnicities.
Atrial fibrillation and stroke
AF is a major risk factor for stroke. People with AF are five times more likely to have a stroke than those who do not. This is because the atria may not be squeezing strongly enough to push all the blood into the ventricles (lower chambers) and the blood can then pool in the atria and form clots. A clot may then travel to the brain and cause a stroke.
How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?
If you are concerned that you or someone in your family may have AF, it is important to discuss this with your doctor. AF is usually diagnosed with electrocardiogram (ECG) technologies and by echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart).
Rapid developments in mobile phone technologies have meant that mobile devices can now be used to detect arrythmias such as AF. This means that the Stroke Foundation is now able to offer free heart rhythm checks in our Big Blood Pressure Check Van to Māori and Pasifika people aged 55+ and all other ethnicities aged 65+.
How is atrial fibrillation treated?
You may need to take medication to manage your AF. There are two types of medication which are used – anticoagulants (to prevent blood clots forming) and anti-arrhythmic products to regulate the heartbeat.
Medical and surgical procedures
There are also procedures that are used to treat AF, including cardioversion (which is used to restore the heart to its normal rhythm) and ablation (which uses a catheter to destroy – or ablate – the part of the heart which is causing the abnormal rhythm).
What can I do to manage atrial fibrillation?
Get advice from a health professional
Ask your doctor for a regular check as well as their advice on changes you could make.
Make lifestyle changes
These could include:
- Stopping smoking
- Sit less, move more
- Keeping alcohol intake low
- Eating mostly fresh, unprocessed foods
- Managing stress levels
- Getting enough sleep
- Taking AF medication
A variety of medications and procedures are available to help control AF. If you have AF, a doctor will advise the best treatment for you.
Some people report that their AF is triggered by physical activity. Regular exercise has huge benefits for your overall health and wellbeing. So, it is important not to let AF stop you from moving your body! Your doctor will be able to advise on a safe and appropriate exercise level for you.
Find out more about AF here.