Last updated:12-15-2008
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Definition and causes

Atrial fibrillation - atrial flutter, is the most common electrical disorder of the heart, resulting in rapid heart beat. Atrial fibrillation causes a disturbance in cardiac electrical impulses resulting in heart atriums contracting more quickly than usual (see cardiac rhythm management). Hart atriums normally contract once per heartbeat and follows the pulse, which is usually between 60 and 80 beats per minute at rest.


Some of the electrical impulses that cause the rapid contraction, transfers to lengthwise (ventricles), which consequently will beat faster than normal, usually between 100 and 160 beats per minute. Since heart atriums and heart chambers work slower the circulation becomes less powerful and pumped irregular starving the body of vital blood supply.
Atrial fibrillation most commonly affects males of over 60 years of age, and the risk factors are smoking, alcohol abuse, obesity and lack of exercise. The condition, especially in the elderly, might also occur without any particular reason, but often due to another underlying disease causing enlargement of the hearth atriums. This may be a heart valve disorder, calcification of the coronary arteries or high blood pressure. The condition is also found in individuals with an overproduction of the thyroid gland.


Symptoms of atrial fibrillation

Some people notice nothing about their rapid heartbeat. Others develop symptoms that may appear occasionally or permanently. The typical symptoms are:


  • Palpitations.

  • Weight sensation or chest tightness.

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Abnormal fatigue.


Precautions and diagnosis

The rapid, irregular heartbeat may give rise to suspicion of atrial fibrillation. The diagnosis can be made conclusively by the physician making electrocardiogram (ECG), measuring the cardiac electrical shock. A blood test can detect any. overproduction of the thyroid gland as the root cause.



Complications of atrial fibrillation

The most serious complication of atrial fibrillation is a blood clot. Blood clots can be formed as a result of the blood flow being blocked in some parts of the heart atriums. When wrenched off and traveling with the blod stream a blood clot might at worst become imbedded in the brain and cause a stroke. (See Blood clot in the brain). The tendency to form clots from aterial fibrillation increases with age.



Treatment of aterial fibrillation

Treatment of aterial fibrillation depends on how often the condition occurs, ie. if it occurs occasionally or is continuing. For occasional attacks the individual might even try to correct the condition by using the so-called Valsalva maneuver, which with the diaphragm presses against a closed throat (as when on the toilet).


Medical treatment, such as digitalis or beta blockers, are often used to reduce the rate of the heart, as well as forcing the electrical pulse back to normal.

If artrial fibrillation is detected early, the application of electric shock might quickly force the electrical pulse back to normal. This is called DC converter (DC = direct current) and is applied under full anesthesia.

Anti coagulation medication might be prescribed to reduce the risk of formation of blood clots. This can be done over a limited period or as a permanent treatment, depending on the risk level for the patient.

Related articles:

Cardiac arrest (Institio cordis)
Extra Stroke (extra heartbeat, extrasystoles)
Forkammerflimmer and flutter (Atrieflimmer and atrial flutter)
Heart Block (1st, 2nd and 3rd degree AV block) and Sick Sinus Syndrome (SSS)
Heart rhythm regulation
Racing heartbeat (Paroxystisk supraventricular tachycardia)



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