Atrial Fibrilliation: A Common Condition with Numerous Causes
Atrial fibrillation is the medical term for a rapid, irregular heartbeat
It affects nearly 3 million Americans
The most common risk factors of atrial fibrillation are age, underlying medical conditions, heart disease or excessive drinking
Though not life-threatening, it can lead to a stroke, if not treated
Atrial fibrillation is a fancy term that refers to an abnormally fast heartbeat. The most common serious heart rhythm occurrence, it affects three million Americans.
Risk factors can vary from patient to patient and may include:
Underlying heart disease
Medical conditions, such as a thyroid condition
Lifestyle choices, such as excessive drinking
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is caused by a malfunction of the electrical signals that direct the heart’s pumping action. The result is a rapid and chaotic contraction of the atria, or upper chamber of the heart. Individuals with this condition often experience shortness of breath, fatigue and palpitations.
While not life-threatening, atrial fibrillation is a serious malfunction of the heart. In some cases, it can lead to stroke. Because blood does not move through the heart normally, a clot can form. If it breaks off and travels to the brain, a stroke can result. Approximately 100,000 people each year suffer strokes caused by atrial fibrillation.
Glenn R. Harper, MD, electrophysiologist, Bryn Mawr Hospital, says there are several known factors that contribute to a person’s risk of developing atrial fibrillation.
One of the most common is age. “As we age, the electrical and structural properties of our hearts change. Sometimes these changes disrupt the heart’s normal rhythm.” About three to five percent of people over the age of 65 have atrial fibrillation, said Dr. Harper.
Another major contributor is an underlying heart condition. “Almost any heart ailment can predispose an individual to atrial fibrillation,” he said. The list includes:
High blood pressure
Coronary artery disease
Heart valve disease
Sick sinus syndrome
A previous heart attack
Congenital heart defects
An inflammation of the heart’s lining
But in the 10 percent of cases where no underlying heart disease is found, physicians have to look elsewhere to determine what is causing the rapid heartbeat. According to Dr. Harper, the most common causes are:
Chronic Conditions. An estimated five percent of all cases of atrial fibrillation can be traced to hyperthyroidism. Among patients with this common thyroid condition, approximately 13 percent have atrial fibrillation. Other chronic conditions that can lead to atrial fibrillation include:
Chronic lung disease
Medications. Stimulants in cough and cold medications may contain ingredients that promote irregular heart rhythms. Some asthma medications can trigger atrial fibrillation, too. It’s important to read labels carefully. Ask your doctor or pharmacist what type of cold medicine is best for you.
Lifestyle Choices. Excessive alcohol use, especially binge drinking, can trigger a passing episode of atrial fibrillation. Caffeine products also are a cause. Atrial fibrillation is sometimes called “holiday heart syndrome,” because of its higher occurrence during weekends or holidays when consumption of alcohol may be greatest.
Even though much is known about the causes of rapid heartbeat, there are patients for whom the cause is never clear. “Some patients with atrial fibrillation have no apparent heart disease or underlying condition—a situation we refer to as lone atrial fibrillation,” said Dr. Harper.
No matter what the cause, it’s important that a rapid heartbeat be evaluated by a doctor.
“For any patient with a rapid heartbeat, it’s important that it be diagnosed and treated,” said Dr. Harper. “Our goal is to prevent any further medical problems, particularly the formation of blood clots that can lead to stroke.”
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