Irregular Hearbeat? It Could Be Atrial Fibrillation

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Maybe you’ve noticed your heart fluttering or racing unexpectedly when you’re resting. What could be going on?

A number of things can cause an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. But one likely suspect is atrial fibrillation (AFib). “Of all the possible heart rhythm disorders, atrial fibrillation is by far the most common,” says Henry Ford cardiologist and electrophysiology specialist Marc K. Lahiri, M.D. 

AFib affects an estimated 2.7 million to 6.1 million people in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Could you be one of them? Here’s what to know about this common — but manageable — condition.

What Is AFib?

Atrial fibrillation is a condition that causes the heart to beat irregularly. “Instead of the heart’s natural pacemaker firing at a regular interval, the upper chambers of the heart start beating chaotically,” explains Dr. Lahiri.

In addition to beating randomly, hearts with AFib also tend to beat too fast. In some cases, once the chaotic heartbeat starts, it continues indefinitely (or at least until it’s treated). But in many people, episodes of AFib come and go. That can make it hard to figure out what’s causing your heart to skip a beat.

So how can you tell if it might be AFib? For starters, it helps to be aware of the symptoms and the factors that increase your risk.

Who Is at Risk of Atrial Fibrillation?

Could you be at risk? Factors that increase your chances of developing AFib include:

• Older age
• High blood pressure
Obesity
• Heart problems (such as heart failure or heart valve disease)
Thyroid disorders
Heavy alcohol use
Smoking
Diabetes
Kidney disease
Sleep apnea

AFib can develop in anyone, at any time. “But it’s much more likely to become a problem as people get older,” Dr. Lahiri says. “Age is definitely the biggest factor that increases your risk.”

Spotting AFib Symptoms

AFib symptoms may vary from person to person. “There’s no single telltale symptom that suggests atrial fibrillation, which can make it tricky to diagnose,” Dr. Lahiri says.

Some people don’t experience any symptoms at all. But those who do tend to notice one or more of these signs:
• Irregular heartbeat
• Heart palpitations (which can feel like flutters or a pounding heart)
• Racing heart
• Fatigue
• Shortness of breath
• Lightheadedness
• Chest pain

Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation

If you notice possible AFib symptoms, take note so you can discuss them with your doctor. During a check-up, your doctor should be able to pick up on an irregular heartbeat — if you’re experiencing an AFib episode. “The problem is that a lot of these episodes don’t happen right at the moment you’re seeing the doctor,” Dr. Lahiri says.

If you suspect you have AFib episodes that come and go, your doctor might send you home with a heart monitor to help figure out what’s happening with your heart rhythm.

“AFib can be serious, but we can treat heart arrythmias with medications and procedures,” Dr. Lahiri says. So don’t ignore that fluttering heartbeat. “If you think you have a possible heart rhythm problem, it’s best to talk to your doctor,” he says.


To find a cardiologist at Henry Ford or make an appointment, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

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Dr. Marc Lahiri is a cardiologist and electrophysiology specialist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.

Categories: FeelWell