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Atrial Fibrillation: What It Is And How It's Treated

Six million people in American suffer from an abnormal heart rhythm.

By Dr. James Richardson

Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) that affects more than six million people in America. It is irregular and is a common, although not the only, cause of “skipped beats” patients may feel or report to their doctors. There are many other causes of palpitations or skipped beats, some of which are benign. 

Afib is commonly not benign. The presence of Afib may predispose to stroke.  This serious complication of Afib may be devastating for a patient and is the main reason why atrial fibrillation needs to be properly treated. Often, blood thinners such as warfarin or some newer anticoagulant medications are used to reduce the risk of stroke in the presence of Afib. 

Afib also can cause the heart to race out of control, causing an erratic and very fast heart beat. If the heart races out of control for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to heart failure or even heart attack. 

This is another reason why atrial fibrillation needs to be properly treated. To reduce this risk, doctors can prescribe medicines to control the heart rates and sometimes even try to force the heart to convert back to a normal heart rhythm. In addition, an electrical shock (cardioversion) can be performed to “reset” the heart back in normal rhythm. 

This procedure is done under anesthesia and is often of low risk.

Somewhat less commonly, Afib can cause the heart to go too slow and even cause a patient to pass out, fall, and injure themselves. If the heart is going too slow in the presence of Afib, a pacemaker is often needed to correct the slow heart beats thereby reducing the risk of passing out.

Afib has no cure, although effective treatments are available. The range of treatments include: lifestyle modifications, treatment of exacerbating conditions, medications to control the heart rates, medication to “reset” or keep the heart in a normal rhythm, cardioversion, surgical ablation procedures, and catheter ablation procedures.

Editor's Note: Dr. Richardson is a cardiologist with Frazier-Hart Cardiovascular, affiliated with the Washington Physicians Group. The information in this article is provided by the Washington Physicians Group for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care, and medical advice and services are not being offered.  If you have, or suspect you have, a health problem you should consult your physician. The Washington Physicians Group provides links to other organizations as a service to our readers; the Washington Physicians Group is not responsible for information provided in other websites.

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