September 21, 2021

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Stroke Coordinator Lisa DeMello MSN, RN, ACNS-BC explains AF, its diagnosis and risks. 

What is atrial fibrillation (AF)?
AF is an irregular heartbeat/rhythm in which the heart muscle fails to contract strong and rhythmically.  As a result, there may not be enough oxygen-rich blood being pumped out in the body.  

How is AF diagnosed?
Many people with AF have no symptoms.  The condition may be detected on a routine physical exam.  However, people with symptoms may experience a racing/pounding heartbeat with light activity or for no apparent reason. They may have additional symptoms, such as shortness of breath, lightheadedness, dizziness, or unusual fatigue. 

Why is it important to diagnose AF?
People with AF are five times more likely to have a stroke than those who do not.  With AF, blood pools in the heart, which promotes the development of clots.  When the heart pumps, the clots may travel to other blood vessels causing an interruption in the flow of blood and oxygen, and the tissue may die.  This can result in a stroke if the brain does not receive what it needs.  

AF can be constant or intermittent. A healthcare provider will determine the risk for stroke and the need to prescribe medications to prevent clots from forming.  People at risk for developing AF are those with obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, enlarged heart, family history, and advanced age, or those who smoke.  It is important to know your risk factors for AF and work with your health care provider to make changes to reduce your risk.

For more information about atrial fibrillation, visit the American Heart Association or view an interactive illustration to understand more. 

Learn more about Cardiology at Saint Anne's Hospital.