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What is AFib? A Guide to Atrial Fibrillations Symptoms & Treatments

Matthew W. Sherwood, MD, MHS, is board-certified in interventional cardiology, cardiovascular disease and internal medicine.

Marc H. Wish, MD, is board-certified in clinical cardiac electrophysiology and cardiovascular disease. Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Wish practice at the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute

Atrial fibrillation — commonly called AFib — is a heart rhythm problem that causes an irregular pulse. It’s a common condition, affecting some 2.7 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association.

Untreated, AFib can lead to serious problems including stroke and heart failure. The good news is that advances in treatment have revolutionized the way we care for patients with AFib.

The Inova Heart and Vascular Institute offers the latest treatment options for this disorder — in fact, we’ve been at the forefront of research to develop many of these treatments.

Here’s your guide to atrial fibrillation.

What happens during AFib?

Normally, the top chambers of the heart send a signal to the bottom chambers, directing them to beat in rhythm. AFib occurs when the top chambers send an irregular signal, throwing off the beat. Irregularity is the hallmark of AFib. In some people, the heart might also beat too quickly or too slowly. 

What causes AFib?

AFib often occurs in people with other conditions, including congestive heart failure, heart valve problems, obesity or obstructive sleep apnea. Sometimes, though, the irregular beat occurs on its own, without any other medical condition.

What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

AFib causes a variety of symptoms:

  • Palpitations (Fluttering or thumping heartbeat)
  • Rapid and irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness or fainting

What atrial fibrillation treatment options are available?

We have a variety of ways to manage AFib and its effects.

  • Medications. In many patients, we are able to manage AFib with medications to control the heart rate. And because AFib increases the risk of blood clots that cause stroke, we often prescribe blood-thinning medications to reduce that risk.
  • Pacemaker. In people whose heart beats too slowly as a result of AFib, we may implant a pacemaker to speed up the heart rate.
  • Cardioversion. Cardioversion is an outpatient procedure in which we apply a synchronized electrical impulse to the heart to restore a normal heart rhythm.
  • Heart ablation. Cardiac ablation is a procedure in which we use a catheter to apply heat or cold energy to a small amount of heart tissue. The procedure interrupts the abnormal electrical impulses in the heart, restoring a normal heartbeat. It can be very effective in patients whose AFib can’t be controlled with medications or other therapies.
  • Watchman. In some patients with AFib, we use a device called Watchman LAAC to reduce the risk of stroke. We insert the parachute-like device into a small pocket of the heart to prevent clots from forming. This procedure doesn’t treat AFib directly, but it does reduce the risk of stroke. It can be a good option for patients who can’t tolerate blood thinners because of other health conditions.
  • Alternative strategies. In patients who don’t respond to more traditional treatments, we have a variety of alternative strategies that may help improve outcomes. There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for AFib. At Inova, we take an individualized approach to treating the disease.

What else should I know?

AFib is the most common heart rhythm problem in people over 65. If you experience symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor.

The atrial fibrillation program at the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute is focused on the latest research and newest techniques. Our experts are experienced in all aspects of managing the disease.

Read more about Inova’s atrial fibrillation program.

To hear more from Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Wish, listen to our podcast “Inova Ask The Doctor: Afib — Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options.”

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