Thursday, September 27th, 2018
Last modified on August 30th, 2022
The heart is a complex organ that is not only dependent upon a system of muscles and blood vessels, but also on specific cells that send crucial electrical signals. When functioning correctly, these signals tell the heart when to contract and relax in order to create a proper heartbeat. An inconsistent heartbeat can lead to an array of issues, ranging from fatigue and dizziness to more extreme complications, including stroke and heart failure. When the atrial chambers irregularly speed up to the point of quivering, for example, this disorder is known as atrial fibrillation.
When caring for our long-term health, information is the key to stability. By understanding both the triggers and signs of atrial fibrillation, we can learn to maintain a healthy heart and body.
As mentioned above, atrial fibrillation (or AFib) refers to the hyperactive shuddering of the tissues in the atria—the top two chambers of the heart. This occurs when the cells responsible for sending electrical impulses become damaged and send faulty signals to the heart muscles, disrupting regular atrial contraction and throwing off the coordinated flow of blood. If they are not following their usual pattern, electrical impulses may fire out of order or at the incorrect frequency to initiate a healthy heartbeat. The two chambers contract too quickly, putting their rhythm out of sync with the rest of the cardiovascular system.
Without a regular heartbeat, blood and oxygen cannot disperse properly throughout the body, leading to heart palpitations, light-headedness, and even fainting. Long-term issues from a lack of blood flow can develop over time. AFib can also allow clots to form, increasing the risk of a clot traveling to the brain and causing a stroke. AFib can be quite difficult to detect, and doctors may need to use electrocardiograms (ECGs) to make a diagnosis.
Though it’s not always possible for doctors to pinpoint the exact cause of atrial fibrillation, certain factors commonly contribute to its onset. Quite often, atrial fibrillation develops after a period of persistent high blood pressure, caused by heart disease or other problematic factors. If high blood pressure goes on for too long, the atria can expand, making them more difficult to fill with blood during each beat. Atrial fibrillation can also manifest as a complication after surgery, also known as postoperative atrial fibrillation (POAF). The exact risk of occurrence depends on the type of surgery performed, but cardiac surgery is the type with the highest risk of POAF. Research indicates POAF among cardiac patients is approximately 30-40%.
Other common contributors include:
Genetics: As with all heart diseases, there is a strong correlation between parents and their children in the development of AFib. If you know that heart disease runs in your family, speak with your doctor about monitoring for signs of AFib as you age, especially if you experience heart-related issues.
Heart Disease: Similarly, other forms of heart disease can affect the health of cells that contribute to AFib. Factors such as coronary artery disease or inflammation around the sac of the heart can interfere with the heartbeat’s regularity in the atrial chamber.
Age: Those over 60 years old have increased chances of atrial fibrillation. AFib is uncommon before the age of 50 but, by the age of 80, about 20% of the population will experience episodes of AFib.
Sinus Node Complications: The sinoatrial node acts as the natural sensor for how much blood your body needs at different times. When this area is damaged, it can fail to send the correct signals to contract the atria or begin the contraction in the wrong area of the heart. A healthy heartbeat is triggered by messages from the top of the heart to the bottom, ensuring the blood flows from chamber to chamber at the right time.
Other contributing factors may include weakened heart muscles, birth defects, heart valve disease, or damage to the atrial tissue after a heart attack. Diseases throughout the rest of the body, such as lung disease, hyperactive thyroid, and diabetes can also act as contributors.
The heart is designed to move blood from one chamber to the next, with each transition specifically timed. In a correctly functioning heart, there is a long enough pause for each atrium or ventricle to fill properly with blood, before moving that blood to the next chamber. Muscle contractions then pump blood to each part of the body. When irregularities throw off the flow of this system, every other system in the body feels the effects.
AFib can be quite asymptomatic for some time, making it difficult to diagnose. However, any condition that interferes with a steady heartbeat will restrict blood flow to necessary areas of the body, which can cause symptoms ranging from discomfort to severe complications. You may feel heart palpitations, or a fluttering in the chest as the atrial muscles hyper-contract, leading to chest pain or tightness and possible dizziness and fainting. Some people also experience anxiety and shortness of breath.
Additionally, if the atria do not expel their full contents with each pulse, blood can pool in them and eventually form clots. If one of these clots travels to the brain and blocks the flow of oxygen to a specific region, a stroke can occur. According to the Natural Stroke Association, up to 15% of stroke sufferers also have atrial fibrillation. Conversely, up to 80% of strokes caused by AFib can be prevented with proper care. Discussing the risks and management options with your doctor will lower your chances of stroke significantly.
When a person has AFib, the heart tends to beat faster than normal. If the heart beats too quickly to fill itself with blood, congestive heart failure (CHF) may slowly develop. When an individual has CHF, the heart’s function as a pump fails to meet the body’s needs. Signs of CHF include fatigue, pooling of water in the feet and ankles, and sudden weight gain. CHF is a potentially life-threatening condition, so those experiencing symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with AFib, speaking with a doctor about long-term lifestyle changes is the greatest defense against potential complications. As with all cardiovascular issues, each body responds differently to different diets, exercise regimens, and medications, so you’ll need to work with a medical team to find the best balance for you.
In some cases, doctors may prescribe medication for a variety of related issues, including blood thinners to prevent blood clots and associated strokes. Your doctor may also recommend anti-arrhythmic medications and beta-blockers to keep the heart beating at a normal rate. Antiplatelet drugs or anticoagulants like aspirin or warfarin are also commonly prescribed when the risk of stroke is a concern.
Additionally, you will need to limit your intake of saturated fats, salt, and cholesterol, and avoid excessive consumption of alcohol. Any stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine can aggravate or increase the risk of developing AFib, so it’s best to enjoy in moderation (except in the case of smoking, which should be stopped entirely). A balanced diet with regular physical exercise and healthy habits gives your body the best possible chance at remaining strong and regulated.
When it comes to the human body, everything is connected in one way or another and multiple factors can impact one’s overall health. Patients should keep tabs on any underlying conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Even conditions such as sleep apnea can place a strain on the respiratory and cardiovascular system, possibly triggering AFib. Any condition that disrupts the flow of oxygen or blood is sufficient reason to speak with your doctor. Awareness and proactive management of any potential risks is key.
Though more severe cases of AFib may require surgery or the implantation of a pacemaker, patients most commonly manage these irregularities with medication, lifestyle changes, and working directly with their doctors.
It is possible for atrial fibrillation to enter a period of remission or go without being triggered for a long period of time. It all comes down to understanding why AFib occurs and what are your body’s particular possible triggers. For most, AFib symptoms are manageable with a healthy lifestyle and prompt attention to any sudden changes. If you suspect that you suffer from AFib, due to genetic predisposition, recent health issues, or general undiagnosed symptoms, meet with your doctor and discuss your options.
If you or a loved one has experienced a stroke, you know that it can have a significant impact on one’s life. Here at Saebo, we are committed to stroke support and recovery to improve the overall quality of life for all survivors and their families. Saebo offers a wide range of products that combine cutting-edge technology with evidence-based rehabilitation techniques. Our offerings and network of Saebo-trained therapists can help you or a loved one to obtain all the necessary tools to maximize stroke recovery.
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. Reliance on any information provided by the Saebo website is solely at your own risk.