Q. What are atria?

A. Atria are the two upper chambers of the heart.

Q. What do the atria do?

A. The atria fill with blood returning from the body and pump it into the ventricles. The right atrium receives de-oxygenated blood from the body. The left atrium receives oxygenated blood from the lungs.

Q. What are ventricles?

A. Ventricles are the two lower chambers of the heart.

Q. What do the ventricles do?

A. The ventricles pump the blood received from the atria out to the rest of the body and lungs to maintain circulation through the body. The right ventricle receives the de-oxygenated blood from the right atrium and pumps it through the pulmonary artery to the lungs, where it will be re-oxygenated. The left ventricle receives oxygen-rich blood from the left atrium and pumps it through the aorta to the rest of the body.


Q. What is the cause of Atrial Fibrillation?

A. Although research indicates contributing factors to the disease, there is no single known cause of AF. In some people, it is thought to be caused by other conditions, such as overactive thyroid, heart attack, hypertension, and certain kinds of heart failure; in others the cause cannot be identified.


Q. What kind of specialists can I see regarding my Atrial Fibrillation?

A. It’s possible your primary care physician or family doctor realized your heart had a particular condition. They may have referred you to a cardiologist, a physician specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disorders. You may continue to work with a cardiologist, or you may see other physicians, who also specialize in the treatment of AF. Those include:
  • An electrophysiologist, (EP) – a cardiologist who specializes in the electrical system of the heart
  • A cardiac, or cardiothoracic surgeon – a surgeon who specializes in performing surgery on the heart

Q. How will my doctor know if I have Atrial Fibrillation or another arrhythmia?

A. Your physician will most likely start by evaluating your symptoms and medical history and performing a physical exam. He or she may also perform electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) and/or cardiac echo tests. The EKG will produce a graph that represents the phases of activation of the heart. Physicians can tell the difference between normal and abnormal heartbeats from this chart, which shows the electrical activity of the heart.

During a cardiac echo test, a device sends and receives sound waves that travel through the chest wall, to the heart, and then are sent back. This information is translated from reflected sound waves to images. The physician can then use this to identify any abnormal structure of the chambers or other areas of the heart.

Q. What does an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) record?

A. An EKG records the heart’s electrical activity using electrodes attached to a patient’s chest and arms. The electrodes transmit information to a machine, which records the electrical activity of the heart muscle. A physician evaluates the rate and regularity of the electrical activity, the position and size of the heart chambers, and any damage that may exist in the heart.


Q. How many people have Atrial Fibrillation?

A. Approximately 2.2 million Americans suffer from Atrial Fibrillation (AF). 1 Physicians diagnose an average of 160,000 new cases each year.

Q. Who is at risk of having AF?

A. Atrial Fibrillation risk increases with age, especially in individuals over age 80. It is estimated that 5 percent of people over age 65 have Atrial Fibrillation; this rate increases to 9 percent or 1 in every 10 persons over age 80. Previous heart conditions (such as heart disease), thyroid problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and possibly obesity are factors that could increase your risk of having AF. It is also more common in men than in women.

Q. Is there anything dangerous about AF?

A. Atrial Fibrillation itself is not a life-threatening condition. That does not mean, however, that the condition isn’t dangerous. Blood clots caused by the heart’s incorrect pumping patterns can break loose and move to the brain, causing a stroke. Individuals with AF are five times more likely to have a stroke.

If the heart has been working irregularly for a long period of time, it can fatigue and go into heart failure. Atrial Fibrillation can also have adverse or potentially fatal effects when combined with other serious heart conditions.

Q. Are there different types of Atrial Fibrillation?

A. There are three identifiable types of AF: paroxysmal, persistent and permanent. Permanent and persistent AF occur for longer life cycles, while paroxysmal is sporadic and may begin and end abruptly. Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation is usually self-ceasing, and lasts approximately a week or less. Persistent AF lasts more than 7 days, but can be treated with intervention. Permanent AF usually lasts a year or more, and cannot be easily terminated.

Q. Is Atrial Fibrillation genetic?

A. Although extremely rare, some research has identified a familial form of Atrial Fibrillation.5 A gene has been identified, as well. 6 Still, research on the genetic causes of Atrial Fibrillation is in the early stages and more research must be done before a conclusion is made.

Q. Can someone die from Atrial Fibrillation?

A. Most episodes of AF are not life-threatening. The largest danger from AF is the increased risk of heart disease and stroke, both leading causes of death in the United States.

Q. What is the economic impact of AF?

A. In the United States, AF is responsible for more days spent in the hospital than all other heart rhythm abnormalities combined, and $1 billion a year is spent on the treatment of AF. The prevalence of AF increases strikingly with advancing age – 4 percent of men and women in the United States older than 60, and 10 percent of those older than 80 have it. As the United States population ages — by the year 2015 approximately 14.8 percent of the population will be 65 and older — AF and its associated conditions will exact even more of a toll on the nation’s health care system. While data for other countries is not widely available, it is believed that AF costs a large amount for health care systems worldwide.

Q. What is the difference between Atrial Fibrillation and ventricular fibrillation?

A. Atrial Fibrillation affects the upper chambers of the heart. Ventricular fibrillation affects the lower chambers. Ventricular fibrillation is a life-threatening arrhythmia, which causes sudden cardiac death if not interrupted. Atrial Fibrillation, while not imminently life threatening, in most cases seems to have serious long-term consequences if left untreated.

Q. Will having Atrial Fibrillation affect my daily activities?

A. Some individuals, especially those with chronic or permanent AF, may have to alter their daily activities because they experience symptoms of tiredness, dizziness, shortness of breath, weakness or fatigue. Others may not experience any symptoms and may not need to alter their daily schedule. Always consult your physician before changing your exercise regimen or undertaking strenuous activities to avoid aggravating your condition further.

Q. Does Atrial Fibrillation hurt?

A. Actual AF episodes typically do not hurt. Some individuals experience discomfort in their chest, although others feel nothing at all. While pain may occur while the heart is in Atrial Fibrillation, more patients complain of a racing heartbeat or feelings of anxiousness.

Q. Is Atrial Fibrillation the same thing as a tachycardia?

A. A tachycardia is defined as a fast heart rate. Many different types of tachycardias exist and Atrial Fibrillation is a type of tachycardia.


Q. Can I prevent AF?

A. Atrial Fibrillation cannot always be prevented, however taking steps to ensure a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce the risks of AF and other cardiovascular conditions. Such steps include:
  • Regular exercise and healthy diet to maintain healthy weight.
  • Abstain from tobacco use and avoiding second hand smoke when possible.
  • See your doctor for regular physical exams.
  • Avoid overuse of alcohol.
  • Monitor caffeine intake.
  • Avoid and/or manage stress and stressful situations.


Q. What are the common symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?

A. Some of the symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation include:
  • Chest pain and/or discomfort
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Irregular pulse
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness, fatigue
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness


Q. How do I know which method of treatment is right for me?

A. You should discuss treatment options with your physician, including your current lifestyle and daily activities, so he or she may recommend the most appropriate treatment for you.

AF treatments can be considered suppressive – they suppress or control the symptoms – or curative – they are designed to eliminate the cause of the condition and have the potential to cure it.

AF is most commonly treated by one or more of the following methods:

Suppressive therapies

  • Cardioversion – Suppression is achieved through electrical or medical cardioversion.
  • Medication – A physician will often prescribe antiarrhythmic drugs, rate control medications or anticoagulant medications to manage the symptoms of AF.
  • Medical devices – Medical devices, such as a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) can be used to regulate the heartbeat.

Curative therapies
Ablation – During catheter or surgical ablation, a physician ablates, or destroys the irregular tissue of the heart to repair the heart’s electrical system and return it to a normal rhythm.

Each method has associated risks and/or side effects, all of which should be discussed with your physician; the chosen method will depend largely on the symptoms you have experienced and your specific heart rhythm.

Q. Is Atrial Fibrillation curable?

A. While there is no cure for AF today, many physicians are achieving great success in the treatment of the disease. Because AF is easier to treat in its early stages, you should not wait to seek information about treatment options.

Q. Can AF go away by itself?

A. On occasion, AF will cease on its own. In a process called Žspontaneous remission,’ the body adjusts to whatever caused the AF and the heart starts beating normally without any treatment at all, however, the occurrence of spontaneous remission is rare and you should not wait to seek treatment for your condition.

Published: January 1, 2007


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