According to the American Heart Association, over two million Americans live with atrial fibrillationâ€”making it the most common arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. Each year, over 160,000 people in the US are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Hypertension, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and hormonal imbalances have all been linked to atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation occurs when the atrial chambers of the heart contract rapidly and irregularly, interfering with the heart’s ability to pump blood. Abnormalities in the electrical activity of the heart are responsible for atrial fibrillation.
Depending on the severity of atrial fibrillation, symptoms may or may not be noticeable. Some people do not even know they have atrial fibrillation until it is diagnosed during a routine medical exam.
Atrial Fibrillation or Atrial Flutter?
Atrial flutter is a condition similar to atrial fibrillation, but the two arrhythmias differ in certain symptoms. While atrial fibrillation produces a rapid, irregular heartbeat, atrial flutter symptoms are characterized by a regular, although very rapid, heartbeat.
When severe atrial fibrillation symptoms occur, patients are often uncomfortable and even frightened. Patients describe having a racing, pounding heart that seems to “flop” in the chest. Initially, many people fear they are having a heart attack or other serious cardiovascular disease, which often leads to symptoms of anxiety as well.
Chronic vs. Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is not always a chronic condition; sometimes the arrhythmia is transitory. It may develop suddenly, last for a few minutes to several hours, then diminish. When this occurs, the condition is known as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is considered chronic if the arrhythmia persists and requires treatment to return the heart to its normal condition.
If untreated, atrial fibrillation can result in a number of life-threatening conditions, including stroke and heart failure. Fortunately, a number of treatment options are available, from calcium channel and beta blockers to anticoagulant medications, and in rare cases, pacemakers.
Statistics for Atrial Fibrillation
According to the 2005 update of the American Heart Association’s heart disease and stroke statistics:
- approximately 2.2 million Americans live with atrial fibrillation.
- atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke fivefold.
- atrial fibrillation is responsible for 15 to 20 percent of all strokes.
- atrial fibrillation affects 1 in 10 people over the age of 80.