Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of serious arrhythmia. It’s a very fast and irregular contraction of the atria, the upper two chambers of the heart.
AFib occurs when the heart’s electrical signal begins in a different part of the atrium than the sinoatrial (SA) node or when the signal is conducted abnormally. When this happens, the electrical signal doesn’t travel through the normal pathways in the atria, but instead may spread throughout the atria in a fast and disorganized manner.This causes the walls of the atria to quiver very fast (fibrillate) instead of beating normally. As a result, the atria aren’t able to pump blood into the ventricles of the heart the way they should.
Symptoms of AFib
Not all people who experience feel symptoms, but those who do often feel palpitations (like their heart is fluttering or beating too fast). Other symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or fatigue.
The AFib and Stroke Connection
The two most serious complications of atrial fibrillation are stroke and heart failure. In AFib, blood clots can form in the atria because some of the blood "pools” in the fibrillating atria instead of flowing into the ventricles. If a piece of a blood clot in the left atrium breaks off, it can travel to the brain, causing a stroke.
Symptoms of Stroke
Symptoms of stroke can include sudden sudden numbness or weakness, especially on one part of the body, sudden confusion, sudden trouble speaking or understanding speech, sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes, loss of balance, or sudden, severe headache.
Strokes in women with AFib are more likely to cause death or serious impairment than other kinds of strokes. People with AFib are often treated with blood-thinning medicines to reduce the chances of developing blood clots that could lead to stroke.
Afib and Heart Failure
Heart failure occurs when the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the needs of the body. AFib can cause heart failure when the ventricles beat too fast and don’t have enough time to fill with blood to pump out to the body.
Symptoms of Heart Failure
Symptoms of heart failure can include tiredness, swollen ankles or legs, and shortness of breath, especially when lying down.
What causes AFib?
Most of the time, AFib result from an underlying condition that damages the heart muscle and its ability to conduct electrical impulses. These conditions include high blood pressure (hypertension), coronary artery disease, heart failure, or rheumatic heart disease.
What Women Need to Know about Afib and Stroke Risk
Other risk factors associated with AFib include obesity, diabetes, overactive thyroid, lung disease, alcohol abuse, sleep apnea, caffeine intake, and stress.
Most women who are diagnosed with AFib are 65 and older, but younger women can develop AFib, as well.
See your doctor if you think you may be experiencing symptoms of AFib. There are treatments that can help relieve symptoms and reduce your risk of stroke.