When Should I Worry About...

Understanding AFib: Signs and Symptoms to Watch For

Feb. 14, 2020

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is one of the most common heart conditions in the U.S., affecting an estimated 2.7 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association. It's crucial to recognize AFib symptoms and get treated for the condition as early as possible.

"AFib, commonly referred to as an irregular heartbeat, occurs when the heart's two upper chambers (atria) experience chaotic electrical signals, resulting in a fast and irregular rhythm," says Dr. Walter O'Hara, cardiovascular surgeon at Houston Methodist.

What causes AFib?

AFib can cause your heart rate to range from 100 to 175 beats per minute, while a normal heart rate range is 60 to 100 beats per minute.

Common AFib causes include:

  • Abnormal heart valves
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Lung diseases
  • Overactive thyroid gland
  • Previous heart attacks
  • Sleep apnea
  • Viral infections

What are the symptoms of AFib?

AFib symptoms may include shortness of breath, chest pain and palpitations. The first line of defense typically is medication therapy after an AFib diagnosis.

"The symptoms of AFib may be very subtle in the beginning, so many people choose to not take immediate action to address it," Dr. O'Hara says. "But recognizing those symptoms and getting treated as early as possible are key to preventing the condition from getting worse."

AFib may weaken the heart and lead to heart failure and increase your stroke risk without treatment.

How is AFib treated?

Patients who have problems despite taking medication may be candidates for electrophysiology, including ablation therapy. In ablation therapy, a catheter is inserted into a vein in the patient's leg to access the heart.

"Ablation therapy creates scar tissue in the heart, which ultimately interrupts the irregular heartbeat," Dr. O'Hara says. "It's shown to have better long-term results for symptomatic AFib patients than medication therapy alone."

Houston Methodist cardiologists also perform convergence, a two-part treatment involving a cardiovascular surgeon and electrophysiologist. The new procedure may provide relief for patients whose AFib is difficult to treat using standard procedures.

"The treatment first involves a surgical ablation of the left atrium, which is performed by a cardiovascular surgeon," Dr. O'Hara explains. "The second part of the procedure involves a catheter ablation performed by the electrophysiologist cardiologist. Convergence is reserved for patients with treatment-resistant forms of AFib, which can develop in patients who have the condition over a long period of time."

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