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AF meaning, causes, symptoms, and treatment – Atrial fibrillation

AF meaning is Atrial fibrillation and is the most common heart arrhythmia. This article explains everything you need to know about it.

This condition is the most common heart arrhythmia. Arrhythmia means an irregular heart rhythm that may or may not be life-threatening.

In atrial fibrillation, the two upper chambers of the heart (the atrium) fail to contract appropriately and conduct electrical impulses to the ventricles. The condition has a strong association with many other heart conditions such as coronary artery disease, valvular disease, heart failure, and heart attack.

Besides, atrial fibrillation is a widespread condition; it affects approximately 6.1 million people in the United States alone.

AF is more frequent in the elderly, affecting around 4 percent of people over 60 and almost 10% of people over the age of 80.

In persons below the age of 55, AF is infrequent. Affecting only 0.5% of people in that age group. AF is extremely rare during childhood, except in the context of heart surgery.

Importantly, AF is significantly more frequent in men than in women. Only 10% of cases occur in healthy patients, and the other 90% occur in patients with a history of heart disease.

I am a medical doctor, and in this article, I will explain everything you need to know about this condition. Keep reading to learn more. 

What stands for AF meaning?

AF meaning is an abbreviation for Atrial Fibrillation. This condition is part of a broader group of diseases called arrhythmias of the heart. In these diseases, the electrical control of the heart dysregulates, causing its malfunction.

Atrial fibrillation is a condition affecting what organ?

Atrial fibrillation affects the heart, precisely the heart’s two upper chambers (known as the atria). In normal conditions, the heart contracts in an organized and rhythmic manner to appropriately pump blood to the body.

Heart contractions occur thanks to electrical impulses that depolarize the muscle fibers in the heart. These electrical impulses start in the atrium’s sinus node and then travel down to the AV node and the ventricles. Sinus rhythm is the medical term that describes the regular and rhythmic beating of the heart. 

In AF, the atrium’s electrical signals become irregular and chaotic, preventing atrial contraction and causing the ventricles to contracts in an irregularly irregular manner. Microscopic examination of AF hearts shows changes in the muscular fibers in the atrium, deposition of fibrotic tissue, and inflammatory cells.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation has many causes, ranging from many forms of heart disease like a coronary artery to noncardiac conditions like hyperthyroidism and Diabetes Mellitus.

Here is a list of the most frequent causes of atrial fibrillation:

In some cases (up to 10% of cases), atrial fibrillation occurs with no apparent cause

What is the meaning of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation? 

There are four different types of atrial fibrillation. This classification depends on the duration of the disease.

The four different types are:

  • Paroxysmal AF: The term refers to AF episodes that disappear spontaneously (without medical intervention) before seven days. Most paroxysmal AF cases last less than 24 hours.
  • Persistent AF: Refers to AF episodes that last for more than seven days and might require some form of medical intervention to terminate.
  • Long-standing persistent AF: Atrial fibrillation has persisted for more than a year either because medical interventions to restore sinus rhythm have failed or have not been attempted.
  • Permanent AF: When both the patient and the physician agree to abort any further attempts to restore sinus rhythm and accept atrial fibrillation as a permanent condition.

Have in mind that this classification system does not include AF causes by reversible causes such as alcohol and drug consumption, hyperthyroidism, sepsis, or acute pulmonary disease. These conditions are not included because, in these contexts, AF is unlikely to recur once the precipitating condition has been resolved. 

What are the symptoms of AF?

Atrial fibrillation presentation can vary significantly from patient to patient. While some present with asymptomatic AF, others can present with life-threatening cardiogenic shock. Although up to 90% of cases do not present with symptoms, some patients might complain of a great variety of mild and moderate symptoms that include:

  • Palpitations: The sensation that your heart is beating too strong, to fast, or irregularly
  • Fatigue or poor tolerance to exercise
  • Syncope: Passing out our fainting
  • Generalized weakness, dizziness, fatigue

Severe cases can have signs and symptoms of cardiogenic shock, which include:

  • Decompensated heart failure: There could be difficulty breathing due to the liquid that is filling up the lungs and swelling of the lower extremities
  • Hypotension 
  • Typical chest pain suggestive of a heart attack 

In the physical exam, the most important finding is an irregularly irregular pulse. Its presence makes AF almost a certainty. Most AF patients have tachycardia (a fast pulse) with a frequency of around 100-140 beats per minute, rarely over 160. However, in AF, due to drug intoxication, the rhythm is usually bradycardic.

What is the complication of AF?

The most frequent complication of AF is a stroke

Patients with atrial fibrillation are five times more likely to suffer from a stroke than the general population. At this point, you might be asking yourself how does a heart rhythm problem can cause a brain problem like a stroke?

Let’s take a closer look.

A stroke happens when part of your brain stops receiving blood. A blockage usually causes it in one of the arteries that feed the brain with blood. Without the oxygen and nutrients carried in the blood, neurons can suffer damage or die, therefore producing brain function loss that expresses itself as symptoms like one-sided weakness, slurred speech, inability to understand written language, etc.

In AF, the atria fail to contract correctly. If your heart is beating too fast, it might not have the chance to expel all the blood with each contraction before filling up again. These two things combined increases the risk of blood clots forming inside your heart.

A blood clot can then travel up to the arteries in the brain, causing a stroke. Because most patients with AF also have other comorbid conditions that put them at an increased risk of stroke, it can be hard to determine if the stroke was due to AF or something else, like atherosclerosis (or cholesterol deposition) in the carotid arteries.

How is AF diagnosed?

The cornerstone of AF diagnosis is a 12 lead EKG (electrocardiogram). It is a quick, simple, and inexpensive test that provides enough information to make the diagnosis in most cases. This medical exam detects the electrical activity of your heart. Then, it translates it into a pattern of lines and waves that almost every doctor knows how to read and interpret. However, atrial fibrillation can be mistaken with a similar condition called atrial flutter.

In cases where there is clinical suspicion of AF, but the EKG turns out normal, your doctor might choose to use a Holter monitor. A Holter monitor is a small, portable EKG machine that continually monitors your heart electrical activity 24 to 48 hours. If you have a paroxysmal AF episode during that time, the machine will record it.

Your doctor might also order blood tests to rule out conditions such as diabetes, anemia, hyperthyroidism, infections, and high cholesterol. 

Once you’ve had your AF confirmed by an electrocardiogram, your doctor might refer you for an echocardiogram. An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart that allows doctors to study the heart muscle and valves.

What is the first line of treatment for atrial fibrillation?

There are two different strategies for atrial fibrillation treatment. The first strategy focuses on returning to sinus rhythm (cardioversion). In symptomatic patients (or patients with bothering symptoms), sinus rhythm restoration can provide a better quality of life, decreasing heart failure symptoms, and improving exercise tolerance. However, cardioversion has not proven to increase life expectancy nor reduce the risk of having a stroke.

On the other hand, the other strategy focuses on heart rate control and stroke prevention through anticoagulation medication.

Beta-blockers like atenolol and calcium channel blockers like verapamil are the first-line agents in heart rate control. These drugs can be administered either through a vein or mouth, which accounts for intravenously or orally methods, respectively.

Anticoagulant medication (blood thinners) are vital in stroke prevention. In new-onset AF patients that have a high risk of stroke, the drug of election is intravenous enoxaparin.

Later on, patients can switch to an oral anticoagulant such as warfarin, dabigatran, rivaroxaban, apixaban, or edoxaban. Antiplatelet agents like aspirin and clopidogrel are not useful in the context of atrial fibrillation. Antithrombotic therapy can produce adverse side effects like bleeding (hemorrhage). 

In some patients, AF appears to be triggered by electrically active spots in the pulmonary veins. The electrical isolation of those foci through catheter ablation can permanently solve AF in those patients. However, this doesn’t work in everyone, and patient selection is the key to success.

What foods should be avoided with atrial fibrillation? 

Your doctor might recommend a few minor diet adjustments if you suffer from atrial fibrillation. The most important one is alcohol avoidance because alcohol ingestion can worsen symptoms in some patients. Caffeine avoidance is also crucial because caffeine can speed up your heart rate. Leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach, and collards have high vitamin K levels and may interfere with anticoagulant medication.

Do you have symptoms of it?

This tool is an atrial fibrillation symptoms checker. It gathers the most important signs, symptoms, and risk factors for this condition. Therefore, it would help anyone who uses it to determine the likelihood of having or developing in the future atrial fibrillation. Also, the greatest feature of this tool is that it is free and would only take a few minutes.

What do you think?

Written by Dr. Esteban Kosak

Doctor of Medicine - MD Recently Graduated from Medical School and inspired to aid the global population during this situation. I think that we shall no longer be waiting to see a doctor when we feel sick. Several times we feel disease searches in Google drive us to a rabbit hole and come out thinking that we may die of cancer or something very serious, given that symptoms may seem to fit a wide variety of illnesses. Since I recently graduated from medical school. I have all the medical information fresh in my mind. My thorough experience as an expert researcher allows me to very-well known the different diseases and conditions that affect human bodies. Empowered by the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). I think that we all can provide a grain of sand to help humanity. That's why we created Symptoms.Care a place where you can come and screen your symptoms and find what different illnesses can be related to them. Armed with the right information you can instantly, discretely, secure and from the comfort of your home talk with a Doctor that can Evaluate your Symptoms and help you seek the right treatment.

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