Why AFib Matters

What are the consequences of atrial fibrillation (AFib)?


Although atrial fibrillation can feel weird and frightening, an “attack of AFib” usually doesn’t have harmful consequences by itself. The real danger is the increased risk for stroke. Even when symptoms are not noticeable, AFib can increase a person’s risks for stroke and related heart problems.

What causes atrial fibrillation?


Sometimes the cause of AFib is unknown. Other times, it is the result of damage to the heart's electrical system from other conditions, such as longstanding, uncontrolled high blood pressure or artery disease. AFib is also the most common complication after heart surgery.

View an animation of atrialfibrillation.

Usually, the most serious risk from AFib is that it can lead to other medical problems, including:

  • Stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Additional heart rhythm problems
  • Inconsistent blood supply


Learn about the important connection between atrial fibrillation, high blood pressure and stroke.

How does AFib lead to stroke?

  • The heart quivers. The upper chambers (the atria) of the heart do not produce an effective, regular contraction.
  • The contraction fails. Imagine wringing out a sponge. Without a good squeeze, water will still be left in the sponge. In the same way, when a heart contraction is either too fast or too uneven, it doesn’t completely squeeze the blood from the atria into the next chamber.
  • Blood pools in the atria. Leftover blood remains in the atria and may pool there.
  • Risks of clotting go up. When blood has the opportunity to pool, it also has the opportunity to clot.
  • Clots can travel and cause blockages. If a blood clot forms in the atria, it can be pumped out of the heart to the brain, blocking off the blood supply to an artery in the brain, causing a stroke. This type of stroke is called an embolic stroke or some doctors call it a cardioembolic stroke.

How does AFib lead to heart failure?


Heart failure means the heart isn’t pumping enough blood to meet the body's needs. AFib can lead to heart failure because:

  • The heart is beating so fast that it never properly fills up with blood to pump out to the body.


As a result, when the heart doesn't efficiently pump the blood forward with strong contractions, symptoms develop because:

  • Blood can “back up" in the pulmonary veins (the vessels that return oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the heart.) which can cause fluid to back up into the lungs.
  • When AFib causes heart failure, fluid in the lungs can cause fatigue and shortness of breath. Oxygen-rich blood is not being delivered to the body and brain, causing physical and mental fatigue and reduced stamina. Fluid also can build up in the feet, ankles, and legs, causing heart-failure related weight gain.


How does AFib lead to additional heart rhythm problems?


Basic answer: The heart’s electrical system stops working properly, and fails to keep the heart chambers in rhythm.

Thorough answer: Every heartbeat is controlled by the heart’s electrical system. To understand why atrial fibrillation is a problem, it is helpful to understand the normal patterns of the heart’s electrical system.

View an animation of a normal heartbeat.

The heart’s normal electrical pattern:

  • The current travels from top to bottom. The heartbeat starts at the top of the heart and – like an electrical wave – the current travels to the lower parts of the heart, signaling the tissue to contract.
  • The sinoatrial (SA) node starts the contraction in the top of the heart. The right atrium (top section of the heart) houses a group of cells called the sino-atrial node. In healthy adults, the SA node fires off between 60-100 heartbeats per minute. The electrical wave moves through the atria to “gatekeeper node."
  • The atrioventricular (AV) node regulates the timing of the lower portion of the heart. The AV node serves as a "gatekeeper" for all of the electrical pulses going through the atria (top sections) to the ventricles (bottom sections). The electrical pulses are delayed at the AV node before they are allowed to move into the ventricles. The delay gives the ventricles extra time to finish filling with blood before contracting.
  • The ventricles contract and pump blood out to the lungs and the body.

Electrical problems in atrial fibrillation:

  • In AFib, the SA node may not start the contraction. Instead, the contraction might start randomly in other areas of the atria or even in the pulmonary veins.
  • In AFib, the electrical current doesn’t flow in an organized top-to-bottom fashion. Instead, contractions are rapid and disorganized.
  • In AFib, the AV node often can’t regulate the chaotic current. It does its best to protect the ventricle from extra electrical impulses, but it can’t stop all of them. As a consequence, the ventricle beats more often than it should – giving rise to the noticeable symptoms of breathlessness and fatigue.
  • When the beat is off, the blood supply can be unpredictable. So, even though the ventricles may be beating faster than normal, they aren't beating as fast as the atria. Thus, the atria and ventricles no longer beat in a coordinated way. This creates a fast and irregular heart rhythm. In AFib, the ventricles may beat 100 to 175 times a minute, in contrast to the normal rate of 60 to 100 beats a minute.


The amount of blood pumped out of the ventricles to the body is based on the randomness of the atrial beats.

The body may get rapid, small amounts of blood and occasional larger amounts of blood. The amount will depend on how much blood has flowed from the atria to the ventricles with each beat.

Can AFib simply go away?


Yes, rarely "spontaneous remission" does happen; it simply goes away.However, it is still something you and your healthcare provider will want to monitor because some people live with AFib and do not feel the symptoms. However, the risks are still present.

Overall, most of the risks, symptoms and consequences of AFib are related to how fast the heart is beating and how often rhythm disturbances occur.

AFib may be brief, with symptoms that come and go. It is possible to have an atrial fibrillation episode that resolves on its own. Or, the condition may be persistent and require treatment. Sometimes AFib is permanent, and medicines or other treatments can't restore a normal heart rhythm.

But for all the reasons listed above, it is important to work with your healthcare provider to determine your treatment needs, and to understand your treatment options. It is also important to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle and reduce your overall risks as much as possible.

 

Recent Discussions From The Newly Diagnosed Forum
Brea0510 avatar

Hi,

I am 45, 4years ago I had a horrible anxiety attack I struggle with daily. December of 2019 I went to ER with Afib had a echocardiogram week later all good no issues till end of March 2020 had another Afib, both episodes I was able to go back in sinus at ER with medication. Last attack doc put me on 25 MG metoprolol twice day been on for 7days I assume take time to adjust and low dose aspirin. Since my last attack I noticed I am very nervous especially in morning. Everyday check heart rate, blood pressure every pain in arms or chest I freak out does not help. Currently all I have for the anxiety is Xanax been worried taking with metoprolol, I was not big fan of lexapro or any other anxiety meds, prior to last attack I was starting to get anxiety under control. Any advice on dealing with both these conditions together will be much appreciated. 

thanks,

geoff

wblanier87 avatar

Hello everyone,

2 weeks ago I woke up with a 'flutterly' feeling in my chest which would lead to an ED visit a few days later (I work in a hospital).  After 2 bags of IV fluids the symptoms went away and stayed away for a day or two.  The flutters came back and I went over to see our cardiologist who noted PACs on my EKG.  So that leads me to today, sitting here wearing a monitor (BodyGuardian Mini Plus) to if we can capture any data.  The flutters still happen but last night I had a pretty rough episode and the company sent the results to my Cardio.  He called me an said he noted some Afib and has now referred me to an EP whom I am going to see tomorrow.  I am 32 years old, no issues with HBP or cholesterol and this has popped up all of a sudden.  As you can imagine this is alot to take in and I am extremly nervous.  After my ED visit my GP noted that I needed a sleep study(Which has been ordered) and my blood work showed that my Thyroid TSH panel was normal other than my Thyroid Peroxidase (TPO) which was sky high at 122.  It was also noted that my white blood cell count was extremly hugh (18.5)  I am hoping that we can get to the bottom of this soon as this is not a fun feeling to have regulary throughout the day.

My mom found this community for me and I hope to learn here.

- Brandon

Neanderthal avatar

Hi,

Except for persistent Afib, I am a healthy 56 yr. old man.  My blood pressure is low, cholesterol is 121, resting heartbeat use to be around 57, blood sugars are good.  I was a runner, mountain bike racer, competitive surfer and competitive tennis player.  A few months ago I went in for a normal physical and the Dr noticed an abnormal heartbeat and sent me to the heart specialist where I was diagnosed with persistent Afib.  I'm on 50 mg of metroprolol and a blood thinner but I'm still in persistent Afib.  I still walk 3 miles per day in the mountains and I still go to work every day.  2 hours after taking my first dose of metroprolol I felt like a new man but am still in the Afib.

I believe that (but have no evidence to support) the herpes virus 2 (genital herpes) attacked my heart and caused this.  A virus attacked my inner ear 4 yrs. ago and I've lost my hearing in my left ear.  I read a study done in Taiwan that said that people with herpes virus 2 have a higher rate of Afib.

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