Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a common heart condition characterised by an irregular heartbeat. It occurs when the heart’s upper chambers (atria) beat in a disorganised and erratic manner.
Understanding Atrial Fibrillation
The heart’s electrical system plays a vital role in maintaining its rhythm. In atrial fibrillation (AF), this system becomes disrupted, leading to an irregular heartbeat. Normally, the heart’s electrical signals start from the sinoatrial (SA) node, travelling through specific pathways to coordinate the contractions of the atria and ventricles.
However, in AF, the atria receive chaotic impulses, causing them to quiver instead of contracting properly which disrupts the heart’s rhythm and coordination.
Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation
AF can manifest through various symptoms that indicate an irregular and rapid heartbeat. While the severity and frequency of symptoms may vary, here are some signs to watch out for:
- Feeling your heart racing, fluttering, or skipping beats (heart palpitations)
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigued and less able to exercise
- A sense of pressure, tightness, or discomfort in the chest
AF lowers your heart’s performance and efficiency, which can lead to problems like low blood pressure and heart failure.
See your GP or call 111 if:
- You have intermittent chest pain
- You have chest pain that subsides quickly but you still feel concerned
- You observe a sudden change in your heartbeat
- Your heart rate consistently falls below 60 or rises above 100, especially if accompanied by other symptoms of atrial fibrillation like dizziness and shortness of breath
Seeking medical advice is crucial to ensure that there is no serious underlying condition.
Causes of Atrial Fibrillation
AF can be caused by various factors that disrupt the normal electrical signals in the heart.
Some common causes include:
- Age: The risk of developing AF increases with age, particularly in people aged over 60.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure): chronic high blood pressure can strain the heart, increasing the risk of AF
- Other medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, including thyroid disorders (such as hyperthyroidism), diabetes, and lung diseases (like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)can contribute to the development of AF
- Lifestyle factors: Excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, and illicit drug use (particularly stimulants like cocaine) can trigger AF episodes or increase the risk of developing the condition
For more information on the causes of AF, you can visit the NHS website.
Complications of Atrial Fibrillation
AF can lead to several complications that are important to be aware of. Two significant complications associated with AF include:
- Increased risk of stroke: AF disrupts the normal blood flow in the heart, which can cause blood clots to form. If a clot travels to the brain and blocks a blood vessel, it can result in a stroke. People with AF are around 5 times more likely to suffer from a stroke compared to those without the condition.
- Heart failure: The irregular and rapid heartbeat in AF can weaken the heart over time, leading to a condition known as heart failure. In heart failure, the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently, causing symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and fluid retention.
How to Check Your Pulse at Home
To check your pulse, follow these steps:
- Find a quiet place to sit and relax for 5 minutes. Avoid smoking or consuming caffeine beforehand
- Extend your left hand with your palm facing up and your elbow slightly bent
- Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand firmly on your left wrist, just below the base of your thumb
- Using a clock or watch with a second hand, count the number of beats you feel for 30 seconds
- Multiply that number by 2 to get your heart rate in beats per minute
A normal resting heart rate should be between 60 and 100 beats per minute. In atrial fibrillation, the heart rate often exceeds 100 beats per minute, and the rhythm of each beat is irregular.
Checking your pulse can provide indications of atrial fibrillation, but it’s important to undergo a comprehensive medical evaluation for a definitive diagnosis if you think you may have it.
Get Your Prescription Online with Healthera
If you’ve been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and have been prescribed a medicine like digoxin, you can order your prescription online using your Healthera app.
It only takes a couple of minutes to set up your order for collection or home delivery from your local pharmacy.
To get started, simple click the button below to open or download your Healthera app: