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Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AF or AFib, is a common type of heart arrhythmia – a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat in which the heart can beat too quickly, too slowly or irregularly.

Diagram showing normal heart and heart with arrhythmia.During AF, the two upper chambers of the heart, called the atria, quiver quickly and irregularly (fibrillate) rather than beating efficiently. This creates sluggish movement of blood into the ventricles, the lower chambers of the heart.

AF can cause blood to clot in the heart, leading to the possibility of stroke. It can also contribute to heart failure and fatigue.

At least 2.7 million Americans have AF. It can happen rarely or intermittently, and it can become a long-term problem.

  • Risk factors

    The risk for AF increases with age, and those who have a close relative with AF have a greater risk of developing it. Other factors that can lead to AF include:

    • High blood pressure.
    • Obesity.
    • Diabetes.
    • Heart failure.
    • Ischemic heart disease.
    • Hyperthyroidism.
    • Chronic kidney disease.
    • Heavy alcohol use.

    Additionally, AF can happen to people who are otherwise healthy because of stress, fatigue, heavy caffeine intake or strenuous exercise.

  • Symptoms

    A person who has AF might not notice the symptoms, which can include:

    • General fatigue.
    • Rapid and irregular heartbeat.
    • Fluttering or “thumping” in the chest.
    • Dizziness.
    • Shortness of breath and anxiety.
    • Weakness.
    • Faintness or confusion.
    • Fatigue when exercising.
    • Sweating.
    • Chest pain or pressure.
  • Diagnosis

    The diagnosis of AF is commonly confirmed through one of these tests:

    EKG: Electrodes are attached to the chest in order to show how fast your heart is beating and its rhythm, as well as the strength and timing of electrical signals as they pass through your heart.

    Holter monitor: The patient wears a small, portable, battery-powered EKG machine to record heartbeats for 24 to 48 hours during normal activities.

    Event monitor: An event monitor, similar to a Holter monitor, is typically used for a longer period. You might use an event monitor that requires that you push a button when you feel symptoms; also, the monitor might start automatically when it senses abnormality.

  • Treatment

    Your healthcare professional can choose from a range of treatments for AF. Medication can reduce the risk of blood clots and stroke; other medicines can help regulate the heart’s rhythm. Your doctor also might recommend that your heart be given low-energy shocks to restore its normal rhythm. Other options include:

    Pacemaker or defibrillator implantation: These devices, installed under the skin on the chest, use electrical signals to help the heart beat properly.

    Catheter ablation: A wire is threaded to the heart through a vein in the leg or arm, and radio waves are used to break up tissue that might be obstructing electrical signals within the heart.

    Maze procedure: A surgeon makes small cuts or burns in the atria. The scar lines prevent disorganized electrical signals that cause AF.