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In a healthy heart, electrical signals travel through the heart and make it beat regularly. But with an irregular heartbeat, or arrythmia, the heart does not beat regularly. Arrythmias, can make it feel like your heart is flip-flopping, beating too fast, too slow, or skipping beats. There are several different kinds of arrythmias, some of which can be normal variations in heartbeat, while other need medical attention.
Atrial Fibrillation, or A-fib, is one of the most common types of arrhythmia, which is when the heart beats too fast in upwards of 300 beats per minute. Some people may feel chest pain, or a racing and/or pounding heart inside their chest.
On the other hand, some people who have A-fib may not feel symptoms at all. A-fib may come on suddenly in between periods of a normal heart rhythm, or it may become an ongoing or long-term heart problem that causes problems with the heart’s ability to pump blood.
Although it can occur by itself, A-fib usually happens because of other health issues. For example, high blood pressure can damage the heart and upset the electrical signals. So can other conditions, like valvular heart disease, coronary artery disease, sleep apnea, or excessive alcohol use.
Because A-fib raises the risk for stroke, it is a major concern. When the heart doesn’t beat normally, such as in A-fib or other certain arrythmias, blood stays inside the heart’s chambers for too long. This can cause a blood clot to form. Then it can travel to an artery in the brain and get stuck there, causing a stroke. People with A-fib may have a five times higher risk of stroke than people without A-fib.
But there is some good news. A study in the journal Circulation found that more than half of A-fib cases are potentially avoidable by dealing with risk factors. Many doctors use a two-step approach to treating A-fib: find and fix changeable risk factors, and then prevent blood clots from forming by treating patients with blood thinners.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends these healthy lifestyle activities to prevent A-fib:
All the above steps promote healthy blood pressure—and that’s important. High blood pressure is the biggest risk factor for A-fib. You can also reduce your stroke risk by keeping your arteries healthy by managing your cholesterol.
Control your blood glucose if you have diabetes. Also, be sure to take all your medicines as prescribed, and let your doctor know if you have any heart symptoms or concerns about your medicines. If you take a blood thinner, you may need to have your blood checked regularly.
And if you’re concerned about yourself or someone else, encourage them to see the doctor.
Originally published 8/15/2016; Revised 2019, 2022
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