Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a kind of abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia. Normally, a specific group of cells begin the signal to start your heartbeat. These cells are in the sinoatrial (SA) node. This node is in the right atrium, the upper right chamber of the heart. The signal quickly travels down the heart’s conducting system. It travels to the left and right ventricle, the two lower chambers of the heart. As it travels, the signal triggers the chambers of the heart to contract. The atria contract with each heartbeat to move blood into the ventricles.
During AFib, the signal to start the heartbeat is disorganized. This causes the atria to quiver or "fibrillate." The disorganized signal spreads to the ventricles. It causes them to contract irregularly and sometimes quickly. The contraction of the atria and the ventricles is no longer coordinated, and the amount of blood pumped out to the body will vary with each heartbeat. The ventricles may not be able to pump blood efficiently to the body.
Treatment options vary according to your medical history, your symptoms, and your preferences. Some people who don’t have any symptoms may not need a large amount of treatment. Some general categories of treatment include:
Anticoagulation medications (blood thinners) or aspirin, to help prevent stroke
Medications to slow the heartbeat, like beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers
Medications to help prevent AFib (antiarrhythmics)
Treatment for the main cause of AFib, if known
Medications to treat heart failure (if present), like ACE inhibitors
Before other treatment is started, you may first need a procedure called an electrocardioversion. This can help get the heart back into a normal rhythm. It involves delivering a low-energy shock to the heart to stop the signal that is making the atria quiver.
Procedures such as catheter ablation or maze surgery may be used to restore normal rhythm if medications and electrocardioversion have not worked. Catheter ablation uses radio wave energy sent through a wire. It destroys the small patch of heart tissue that causes AFib. Maze surgery uses cuts or burns in the atria to prevent AFib.
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