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Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a complex disease affecting 5 million men and women in the U.S., most of them over 60. In fact, you have a one-in-four risk of developing atrial fibrillation in your lifetime. The earlier we find and treat the disease, the more successful we are in helping patients experience longer, more enjoyable lives.

What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

A person experiencing atrial fibrillation has abnormal and chaotic electrical signals or pathways that occur in the atria (the top part of the heart), causing an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). The loss of normal coordinated activity can lead to an inability of the heart to support the functional needs of the body. In addition, blood clots can form in the atria which can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. While some patients show symptoms of atrial fibrillation, many do not—which is why routine exams are important.


Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

The older we get, the higher our risk for developing atrial fibrillation. The disease can be caused by many other factors, including:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Dysfunction of the sinus node (the "natural pacemaker" of the heart)
  • Mitral valve disorders
  • Rheumatic heart disease
  • Pericarditis (inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart)
  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Family history of atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation can also occur in conjunction with a heart attack or soon after heart surgery.

Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

Many people with atrial fibrillation never experience symptoms. Those who do may have one or more of the following, which can start or stop suddenly:

  • Heart palpitations (the sensation of feeling the heart beat)
  • Irregular pulse which feels too rapid or too slow, racing, pounding or fluttering
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Fainting
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble breathing
  • Difficulty breathing when lying down
  • Sensation of tightness in the chest
  • Stroke

Testing for Atrial Fibrillation

First, your health care provider will listen to the heart with a stethoscope, which may reveal an irregular rhythm. The normal heart rate is 60 to 100, but in atrial fibrillation the heart rate may be 100 to 175, even at rest. Slow heart rates may also occur with atrial fibrillation. Blood pressure may be high, normal or low.

To confirm the diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, your health care provider will record the rhythm of the heart using an electrocardiogram (ECG). When atrial fibrillation is intermittent, long-term monitoring may be necessary, using equipment like an event monitor.

You may receive additional tests to find other abnormalities of the heart that can occur with atrial fibrillation. Theses include:

  • Echocardiogram
  • Nuclear imaging tests
  • Coronary angiography
  • Exercise treadmill ECG
  • Electrophysiologic study (EPS)

Northwestern Memorial’s Integrated Approach

Our integrative approach unites a team of nationally recognized cardiac surgeons, cardiologists, cardiac electrophysiologists, nurses and other experts who coordinate their efforts with your primary care physician or other referring health care provider. We specialize in treating patients who have not experienced relief from conventional therapies.

For more information, the Heart Rhythm Society offers a thorough overview of atrial fibrillation.

Contact Us Today

For more information regarding atrial fibrillation, please call the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at 312-694-AFIB (2342) and ask to speak with one of our dedicated atrial fibrillation nurses. Jane Kruse and Mary Navarrete can provide information, answer questions and assist you with treatment options that best fit your needs. You can also request a first-time appointment online.

Clinical Trials and Quality Ratings

For more information regarding clinical trials related to atrial fibrillation, please visit the Clinical Trials Unit of Northwestern, send an email or call 312-926-4000.

Our quality ratings provide detailed information about data we have collected about our healthcare performance. View our quality ratings related to atrial fibrillation.

Last UpdateDecember 18, 2013