Atrial fibrillation is a very common type of
palpitation. It occurs in about 4 in every 100 people
over the age of 65, but it can also affect younger
people. Atrial fibrillation can last for a few minutes
or hours, or the condition can become permanent.
Atrial fibrillation is a type of irregular heartbeat
(arrhythmia) in which the atria beat irregularly and
often very fast – up to 400 beats a minute. As the
AV node cannot conduct all these impulses, only a
few are passed on to the ventricles . The ventricles respond by
beating quickly (at up to 180 beats a minute) and
irregularly. The speed and irregularity of the
arrhythmia can produce quite unpleasant
palpitations. If the atrial fibrillation is particularly
fast, the heart’s pumping action is disturbed and
may cause breathlessness.
Fortunately, atrial fibrillation is not usually
immediately dangerous, but it does need to be
investigated and treated. In a very small number of people, the fast irregular rhythm may lead to a clot
forming in the heart. If the clot became dislodged,
it could cause a stroke.
Causes of Atrial Fibrillation
The causes of atrial fibrillation include rheumatic
heart disease, coronary heart disease, heart valve
disease, heart failure and high blood pressure. It
can also be caused by an overactive thyroid, having
too much alcohol, acute lung infections such as
pneumonia, and heart and lung surgery. If you
have atrial fibrillation but no underlying cause is
found, it is usually called ‘lone atrial fibrillation’.
There are various ways of treating atrial fibrillation.
The treatment varies from one person to another.
• If you have a normal heart rate but only have
occasional attacks of atrial fibrillation, your
doctor may prescribe a low-dose aspirin for you.
• Your doctor may prescribe digoxin, or a
beta-blocker, such as atenolol or an
anti-arrhythmic drug such as amiodarone.
These drugs will slow down a fast heartbeat, or
help to return it back to normal.
• If you have a risk of blood clots forming – for
example if you have rheumatic heart disease,
high blood pressure, diabetes or continuous
atrial fibrillation – you may be given an
anticoagulant medicine such as warfarin,which
will reduce the risk of stroke.
• You may be given electrical ‘cardioversion’ or
‘defibrillation’ to restore the heart’s normal
• In the rare cases that the heart does not
respond to the treatment above, other
procedures such as catheter ablation therapy
and pacemaker implantation may be