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What Atrial Fibrillation Means

By , Caring.com senior editor
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What is atrial fibrillation and how is it treated?

If someone you know has been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF), he's not alone: According to the American Heart Association, 2.2 million Americans live with this heart rhythm abnormality.

Atrial fibrillation means that the atria (the upper chambers of the heart) are beating very rapidly and irregularly, "quivering" instead of contracting normally. In itself, AF isn't life threatening, but it can cause uncomfortable symptoms like palpitations, fatigue, dizziness, and nausea. It can also lead to other rhythm problems and congestive heart failure.

But the most serious complication is stroke: AF increases a person's risk of having a stroke by fivefold because his quivering atria can't efficiently pump blood into his ventricles (the lower chambers of the heart). When leftover blood pools in one or both atria, blood clots may form and break loose from the heart.

AF isn't a cause for panic, nor is it a death sentence: The person you're caring for can live a reasonably active life for many years. What you need to know is how he will be treated, what to do to help him prevent a stroke, and what warning signs you should look out for.

AF treatment is designed to help prevent a stroke and normalize heart rate and rhythm as much as possible. The patient's doctor may prescribe a number of different medications:

  • To thin his blood and slow clotting, he should take aspirin (considered an antiplatelet drug) or warfarin (an anticoagulant). Warfarin is more effective against embolic strokes (caused by blood clots), but it also has more side effects. If he has an ulcer or other bleeding problems, his doctor will probably recommend aspirin instead.

  • The doctor will most likely prescribe medication to slow the patient's heart rate as well. Some of the most commonly prescribed drugs are beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, digoxin, and amiodarone.

  • His doctor may also prescribe medication to normalize his heart rhythm. One such drug, ibutilide, is given intravenously under close medical supervision. Other medications come in pill form.