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Atrial Fibrillation: common questions and answers

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What is atrial fibrillation (AFib)?

Atrial Fibrillation, also known as AFib, is a heart condition that causes an irregular heart rate, often abnormally fast. A normal heart rate should be regular and between 60 and 100 beats a minute when you're resting. In some cases of AFib, it can be considerably higher than 100 beats a minute.

This quivering or irregular heartbeat, referred to as arrhythmia, can cause problems such as feeling dizzy, having shortness of breath and fatigue. You may be aware of noticeable heart palpitations, where your heart feels like it's pounding, fluttering or beating irregularly, often for a few seconds or, in some cases, a few minutes.

What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

People with atrial fibrillation may unaware of their symptoms such as their irregular heart rate, which may only be discovered during routine tests or when checking other conditions. Commonly, older people may also be unaware as they associate the symptoms of AFib with ageing, however once they have been administered treatment, they feel much better and realise they had not been feeling normal for all that time.

The main symptoms of atrial fibrillation are:

  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Tiredness
  • Light-headedness
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Heart palpitations (a racing, pounding or fluttering heart rate, or a sensation that your heart has skipped or added another beat)

How common is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a common disturbance of the heart’s electrical system, and is the most common hearth rhythm conditions, affecting around 1 million people in the UK. It affects about 7 in 100 people aged over 65. Twice as many men than women have atrial fibrillation but women are more likely to have adverse outcomes such as stroke.

AFib can affect adults of any age, including physically active individuals such as athletes. However, AFib is most common amongst people with previous and current heart conditions.

Can I detect atrial fibrillation at home?

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Yes, you can, early detection of the condition can help to prevent the risk of other complications. Helping you to monitor your blood pressure and heartbeat at home, the Cardio blood pressure monitor with atrial fibrillation (aFib) detection, is easy to use and set-up. Offering accurate and reliable readings, the monitor detects aFib, premature contraction and non-type specific arrhythmia. 

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If you have spoken to a pharmacist about your aFib risk or perhaps your doctor has recommended that you monitor your heartbeat and blood pressure at home, the cardio blood pressure monitor could help you stay in control of your health.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

There is no exact cause of atrial fibrillation, however it is most common amongst older people and or people with other heart conditions.

Some people who are living healthy lives and have no other medical problems do develop AFib but it can also be lifestyle driven.

Possible causes and triggers include, but are not limited to:

  • Age, being over 60 years old
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart defects
  • Heart surgeries
  • Heart valve disease (abnormal heart valves)
  • Overactive thyroid gland
  • Metabolic imbalance
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Drinking alcohol excessively
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Pneumonia
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Sleep apnea

Not every person with atrial fibrillation has one of the illustrated conditions, and it can also affect physically fit individuals, including athletes.

How to prevent atrial fibrillation

To prevent atrial fibrillation, it is important heart-healthy lifestyle including a healthy diet and frequent exercise. The main ways to reduce your risk of heart disease and atrial fibrillation are:

  • Eating a healthy diet (food low in salt, saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol)
  • Increasing your physical activity (sport and exercise)
  • Avoid stimulants such as smoking, caffeine, alcohol and certain medications
  • Reducing stress (anger and stress emotions can cause heart rhythm problems)
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Controlling cholesterol
  • Managing high blood pressure

Can you reverse AFib?

Atrial fibrillation can be caused by many things, and some of those causes are reversible, which means your symptoms can improve or stop entirely without additional heart rhythm medications or a surgical procedure.

What is the difference between atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter?

Atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter are both abnormal heart rhythms, occurring when there is an issue with the electric signals and pathways in the heart leading to an irregular heart rate.

Both heart conditions lead to an abnormally fast heart rate, though atrial flutter is less common and less severe compared to atrial fibrillation. However, both conditions share similar symptoms such as dizziness and fatigue, making it hard to tell the difference.

With atrial fibrillation, the atria (the upper two heart chambers) receives disorganised electric signals, which means they are beating out of coordination with the ventricles (the bottom two heart chambers), leading to a rapid and irregular heart rhythm. In comparison, with atrial flutter the atria receives organised electrical signals, however it beats more frequently than the ventricles which causes the increased heart rate.

How serious is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is often treatable and isn’t usually life-threatening, however most people are unaware that they even have AFib due to associating symptoms with ageing, such as fatigue and shortness of breath. If AFib is unrecognised and untreated it may mean emergency treatment is needed which can lead to heart failure and stroke. There is also potential to develop blood clots in the upper chambers of the heart. Therefore, it is important to get tested and regularly monitor your blood pressure, even if symptoms are not clear.

You should make an appointment to see a GP if:

  • you notice a sudden change in your heartbeat
  • your heart rate is consistently lower than 60 or above 100 (particularly if you're experiencing other symptoms of atrial fibrillation, such as dizziness and shortness of breath)

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