Most people first notice an irregular heartbeat when they notice that their heart is pounding, "skipping a beat," or racing. Or a doctor may catch it when listening with a stethoscope. But it can be hard to know if this is an unusual episode or if you're experiencing signs of atrial fibrillation, a common, chronic condition that affects 3 million people in the U.S. If you suspect you have AFib, as it's often called, it's time to call the doctor, because AFib needs to be controlled to protect your health. Here are some of the health problems to watch out for -- and prevent with medical help -- if you suspect you have AFib.
Atrial Fibrillation Means Your Heart's Not Working Properly
Think of the heart as an electrical system that requires a steady, regular charge to keep beating normally. When this system becomes damaged, usually by some underlying condition such as high blood pressure, the signals get disrupted (or "disorganized," in doctor-speak) and the upper chambers of the heart, called the atria, begin quivering or "fibrillating" instead of pulsing regularly.
Why this is serious: When the atria fibrillate, vibrating rapidly and irregularly rather than pumping steadily, your heartbeat is weakened and blood doesn't move as quickly through the heart.
What to do: There are a number of treatment possibilities for AFib, depending on how and where the irregularity is happening, how severe it is, and the extent of the underlying damage. The doctor will order tests to analyze the heart's electrical signals (ECG) and look for structural damage and blood flow blockages (using electrocardiogram and X-ray). In 10 percent of AFib cases, no underlying cause is found, but the condition still needs to be treated.