September 13, 2012

You may have heard the term “atrial fibrillation” from your doctor or in drug commercials on TV–after all, it’s a condition that affects 2.2 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association. But what exactly is atrial fibrillation, and should you be worried about it?

September is National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month, so we wanted to take some time to shed light on atrial fibrillation symptoms and signs.

Understanding Atrial Fibrillation

The lub-dub, lub-dub of a properly functioning heart is controlled by what’s called your sinoatrial node–a small area at the top of your heart made of specialized cells. Like a strobe light, these cells discharge a beat of electricity to the rest of your heart. Your sinoatrial node keeps your heart beating correctly and regularly.

If you have atrial fibrillation, the electrical signal doesn’t transmit through your heart correctly, and the rhythm of your heartbeat is incorrect. When this happens, it can be very dangerous. Having atrial fibrillation dramatically increases your chances of having a stroke. Because blood isn’t being pumped through your heart properly, it can pool and form blood clots, which can then break loose and travel to other parts of your body.

What are the Symptoms?

Some people with atrial fibrillation recognize right away that their heart is acting a little strange, while others don’t notice a thing. To be diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, you’ll need to visit the doctor for a physical exam and an EKG, or electrocardiogram.

If you notice any of the following symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor to find out if they could be caused atrial fibrillation:

■A fluttering sensation in your chest

■The feeling that you can’t exercise as long or hard as normal

■Shortness of breath

■Chest pain



Although atrial fibrillation can be dangerous, it’s encouraging to know that there are many types of treatments that can keep atrial fibrillation under control, and many people live long and active lives with the condition.