To poets and artists, the heart is the symbol of love. In fact, often people describe meeting their soul mate and having their heart “skip a beat.” To those in the medical community, the heart is a symbol of mechanical and electrical synergy, the center of life itself. When it “skips a beat,” there is a reason for concern. In other words, the scientific explanation of what the heart is and what it does wins out every time. This is especially true when it comes to atrial fibrillation.
Test for atrial fibrillation with an ECG/EKG.
Basic Heart Anatomy
Before you can understand what atrial fibrillation is, it is important to understand the basic anatomy of the heart. Your heart is divided into four chambers. The two upper chambers are called the atria while the two lower chambers are called the ventricles. To “pump,” the heart has its own electrical system powered by two nodes – the sino-atrial node and the atrial-ventricular node. Hormones, medications, exercise, and illness all affect how often these electrical pulses fire, causing the heart to pump oxygen-rich blood to the body and oxygen-poor blood to the lungs. This entire circulation process happens over and over again, between 60 and 100 times every minute, from long before a child is born until the day we die.
What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Chemical imbalances, medications, heart disease, illness, or accidents can cause the atria (the upper chambers of the heart) to quiver rather than beat regularly. This quivering is called arrhythmia and happens to millions of people every year, especially as they age. Fail-safe mechanisms in the heart generally allow it to restart its normal steady and strong beating within a few seconds. However, atrial fibrillation can also cause blood clots to form in the upper chambers of the heart because blood is not flowing throughout the body the way it should. These clots then have the potential to break off and travel to the brain, causing a stroke. In fact, one in five people who experience a stroke also has atrial fibrillation.
How to Treat Atrial Fibrillation?
Treatment for atrial fibrillation is based on how frequently you experience it, how long it lasts, your risk for stroke, and your heart disease history. Mild or infrequent cases of atrial fibrillation are generally managed by reducing other risk factors for heart disease or stroke. These may include eating right, exercising, managing stress, lowering your blood pressure, avoiding tobacco, and limiting your caffeine intake.
More significant cases of atrial fibrillation may be managed with a combination of managing risk factors and medications. If these options fail to yield the desired results, your doctor may consider an Internal Cardioversion Device or pacemaker that will help your body regulate your heartbeat.
While atrial fibrillation is a serious medical condition, it is one that can be managed if you seek medical care. Rather than waiting until something more serious happens, discuss feelings of fluttering in your chest, excessive fatigue, dizziness, or fainting with your doctor.