Atrial fibrillation - arrhythmia

Atrial fibrillation is a type of abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) of your heart. 

Atrial fibrillation starts in the upper chambers of your heart (the atria) and causes them to quiver (fibrillate), instead of beating normally. 

This can mean your heart doesn’t pump blood around your body as efficiently as it should.

Some people have a single episode of atrial fibrillation. For others it can come and go (sporadic or paroxysmal), or be permanent (persistent).

It’s important to diagnose and treat atrial fibrillation because it can cause blood clots that can block blood supply to your vital organs and lead to a stroke. It may also be a sign that you have heart disease.

Causes

The most common causes of atrial fibrillation are:

  • long-term high blood pressure
  • coronary heart disease (blocked  arteries)
  • valvular heart disease (problems with your heart valves).

It is sometimes caused by hyperthyroidism (when your thyroid is too active). This cause can be treated. 

Atrial fibrillation can also be associated with chest trauma or surgery, or too much caffeine or alcohol. Some medicines or diseases (like pneumonia) can trigger atrial fibrillation. Sometimes there is no known cause. 

Symptoms

Atrial fibrillation can cause symptoms like:

  • a 'fluttering' heartbeat
  • an irregular pulse
  • weakness 
  • tiredness
  • dizziness.

Diagnosis

If your doctor suspects you have atrial fibrillation, they may do tests like an electrocardiogram (ECG) or echocardiogram. Read more about medical tests 

Treatment

Your doctor will decide on the best treatment, depending on:

  • how bad your symptoms are
  • the cause (if known)
  • how long you have had the problem
  • your risk of stroke and other problems 
  • the risks of each treatment.

Medicines

Most people with atrial fibrillation will need to take medicines. Your doctor will decide the best ones. Ask your doctor for information on these medicines.

They may prescribe medicines to restore or maintain a normal heart beat in the short or long term. 

Most medicines usually have to be taken for the long term. It’s important to take medicines as prescribed. 

Read more about medicines.

Procedures

Your doctor may also recommend procedures like:

  • electrical cardioversion
  • catheter ablation
  • surgery (very rare) to try to make your heart beat normally.

Read more about heart procedures 

Lifestyle changes

As with other heart conditions the best way to manage your heart health is to make sure you see your doctor regularly and reduce the risks. It’s important to manage the risk factors for heart disease to avoid more heart problems. Find out about the risk factors and what you can do about them

You may also need to reduce your caffeine intake. Talk with your doctor about what’s best for you. 

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Information sheet

Atrial fibrillation

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