Atrial Fibrillation: What is an Atrial Arrhythmia?

Updated on September 17, 2019

Around 5.3 million Americans have atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib), the most common form of atrial arrhythmia, also known as supraventricular arrhythmia. 

While there are many different types of arrhythmia, all of them refer to an abnormal heart rate. These can mean that your heartbeat is too fast (tachycardia), too slow (bradycardia), irregular, or a combination. 

But what is AF? In the case of atrial fibrillation, sufferers experience an irregular and often rapid heart rate. And, like many other forms of heart disease, AF can increase your chance of heart attack, stroke, and other heart-related complications. 

Read on to find out more about AFib, including how to prevent it. 

Common Types of Atrial Arrhythmia

Abnormal electrical impulses in the atria (the heart’s upper chambers) are the cause of atrial, or supraventricular, arrhythmia.

Aside from atrial fibrillation, other forms of arrhythmia include:

Atrial flutter – This is similar to atrial fibrillation, but the rhythm is more regular and less chaotic than the irregular patterns common with AF. Atrial flutter can sometimes develop into atrial fibrillation, and vice versa. 

Sinus tachycardia – Fast electrical signals from the sinus node cause the heart rate to speed up.

Sinus bradycardia – The electrical signals from the sinus node are either blocked or slow, causing a slow heart rate. 

Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation 

As the most common form of arrhythmia, AF poses the biggest threat to our health. But what happens when you go into AFib?

AFib means you have a chaotic and irregular heartbeat. This is because the heart’s two upper chambers (the atria) are out of sync with the heart’s two lower chambers (the ventricles). 

Doctors diagnose AF with an AFib EKG (electrocardiogram) to check your heart rate. They can do this in their office or you may need to wear a device that monitors your heart rate over a period of 24 hours or longer. 

Signs and Symptoms

Some of the symptoms and signs of atrial fib include: 

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations – these can include sensations such as a racing heartbeat, fluttering, or flip-flopping in your chest
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness

However, some people with AF have no symptoms. As such, it’s not uncommon for some sufferers to be unaware of their condition until their doctor diagnoses it during a physical examination. 

Different Types of Atrial Fibrillation

Not all atrial fib sufferers experience the same kinds of episodes with this condition. Your doctor may diagnose you with AF that is: 

Occasional – Otherwise known as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, this kind of AFib comes and goes. Symptoms may only last for a few minutes or they can continue for as long as a week with repeated episodes. Symptoms may disappear on their own or you may need treatment. 

Persistent – This type of AF means your heart rate doesn’t return to normal on its own so you will need some form of treatment, such as medication, to restore your heart rate to normal. 

Permanent – This type of AFib means treatment will not be able to restore your heart rate to normal. Patients with permanent atrial fibrillation must take medications to control their heart rate and complication.

Complications of Atrial Fibrillation  

While AF is not life-threatening, it is a cause for concern due to the complications it can lead to, including:

Heart Failure – AFib, and especially if it is uncontrolled, can weaken your heart. This can then lead to heart failure. Heart failure means that your heart isn’t pumping blood around your body as it should. 

Stroke – A big concern with atrial fib is that your heart’s chaotic rhythm can cause blood to pool in your atria, leading to blood clots. If a blood clot forms, this can circulate to other organs, including your brain. This clot can then block blood flow and cause an ischemic stroke

Causes & Risk Factors of Atrial Fibrillation

Heart abnormalities or heart damage are the most common causes of AF. These can be as a result of:

  • Heart disease
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack
  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Congenital heart defects 
  • Viral infections
  • Thyroid conditions
  • Sleep apnea
  • Overexposure to stimulants (e.g. caffeine, alcohol, or medications)
  • Previous heart surgery
  • Stress from surgery or illness

But sometimes, patients present with AFib without any of these atrial fibrillation causes. If doctors cannot identify any heart defects or damage alongside AF, the condition is called lone atrial fibrillation. 

Specific risk factors also increase your chances of getting AFib. These include: 

  • Age – Your risk of developing AF increases the older you are.
  • Obesity – Obese people have a higher risk of developing AF.
  • Chronic conditions – Certain chronic conditions, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease have an increased risk of developing AFib. 
  • High blood pressure – People with high blood pressure, especially if it’s not well-controlled, have a greater risk of atrial fib.
  • Alcohol consumption – Drinking alcohol, and especially binge drinking, can trigger an episode of AFib or put you at a higher risk of developing the condition.
  • Family history – You have an increased risk of AF if a close family member had or has it. 

These risk factors also increase your chances of suffering a stroke as a result of AFib if you have the condition. 

Preventing Atrial Fibrillation

Many of the causes and risk factors of AF listed above are out of your control. But leading a heart-healthy lifestyle can help to reduce your risk of developing heart problems such as AFib. 

Some of the ways you can help to prevent AFib include: 

  • Not smoking
  • Limiting or avoiding caffeine and alcohol
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Increasing your physical activity
  • Taking steps to reduce stress
  • Using OTC medications with caution

These healthy lifestyle choices may also help you to avoid some of the causes of atrial fib, such as coronary artery disease.  

Your Guide to Atrial Fibrillation 

While all forms of atrial arrhythmia present serious health concerns for sufferers, AFib deserves special attention due to its prevalence in the US population. 

But, thanks to this guide, you now know the signs and symptoms to look out for, as well as the risk factors involved and the steps you can take to prevent AF. 

For more of the latest health news, be sure to check out our other blog posts!

+ posts

Throughout the year, our writers feature fresh, in-depth, and relevant information for our audience of 40,000+ healthcare leaders and professionals. As a healthcare business publication, we cover and cherish our relationship with the entire health care industry including administrators, nurses, physicians, physical therapists, pharmacists, and more. We cover a broad spectrum from hospitals to medical offices to outpatient services to eye surgery centers to university settings. We focus on rehabilitation, nursing homes, home care, hospice as well as men’s health, women’s heath, and pediatrics.