Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition that causes an irregular and rapid heartbeat. This irregular heartbeat can cause difficulty breathing and general weakness. Atrial fibrillation is not constantly present -- it occurs in episodes. These episodes consist of the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) contracting quickly and irregularly. This causes blood to pool in the atria, restricting blood from the lower chambers. There are three types of atrial fibrillation, ranging from the occasional to the permanent and more serious. Many people who have atrial fibrillation do not experience symptoms. Some, however, may feel short of breath, chest pains, or experience the feeling of their heart "missing beats". Atrial fibrillation is not life-threatening in and of itself, but it can lead to higher risk of stroke or heart failure. During atrial fibrillation, a blood clot can form in the pool of blood in the atria, which can then travel to the brain, causing stroke. If blood is not pumped fast enough, as can be caused by the irregularity of atrial fibrillation, heart failure can occur. Atrial fibrillation can be managed through electrical or medical cardioversion -- resetting the heart to a more normal rhythm.
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Often, there are no symptoms of atrial fibrillation. In these cases, atrial fibrillation is not discovered until a doctor discovers it, during a regular examination or otherwise. Other people may experience feelings of dizziness or chest pain.
Atrial fibrillation is often caused by some defect to the heart. This can be a physical, structural defect or another health problem related to the heart. As you get older, you are more likely to have atrial fibrillation.
If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms, your doctor may run a series of tests to check for atrial fibrillation. These tests may include an EKG, blood tests, an echocardiogram, and a chest x-ray. Because those suffering from atrial fibrillation often do not show symptoms, you may be diagnosed during a routine physical.
Treatment for atrial fibrillation varies based on the severity of the condition. For occasional, or paroxysmal, atrial fibrillation, no treatment may be necessary. In the case of persistent atrial fibrillation, medical or electrical cardioversion may be necessary -- resetting the heart to a more normal rhythm. If a patient suffers from permanent atrial fibrillation, the cardioversion as well as blood-thinners to reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack may be necessary. In very extreme cases, surgery may be judged a necessity.
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