Atrial fibrillation (also known as AF or AFib) is the most common type of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat or heart rhythm). The most common symptom of AF is heart palpitations (an irregular and rapid heartbeat, typically experienced as a rapid thumping in the chest). You can live an live active, healthy life with treatment. However, you may be at risk of serious complications associated with AF, especially if it is not properly managed or treated.
Atrial fibrillation increases your risk for stroke, heart failure, and being hospitalized. Learn more about these complications in "How can atrial fibrillation harm me?" The good news is there are many ways to effectively manage atrial fibrillation. Your doctor can discuss atrial fibrillation with you and address any concerns you may have. If you have questions about atrial fibrillation or want to know if you are at risk for atrial fibrillation, talk to your doctor.
AF increases your risk for stroke. In AF, the electrical signals in the atria (upper chambers of the heart) are so fast and disorganized that they cannot pump blood effectively into the ventricles (lower chambers of the heart). As a result, blood pools in the heart (the atria chambers) and blood clots can form in the atria. These clots can then travel to the brain or other parts of the body. A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks blood from reaching the brain. Blood clots can also travel to other parts of the body and cause damage. Learn more about the heart and atrial fibrillation in "What is atrial fibrillation?"
Atrial fibrillation causes about 15% of all strokes. This number goes up to about 30% in people over 60 years old. Although the risk for stroke varies with each person, people with AF have 3 to 5 times as great a risk of stroke caused by a blood clot compared to people without AF.
Use our Atrial Fibrillation: Stroke Risk Assessment tool to find out your risk of stroke.
Because AF can sometimes cause long-term damage to the heart, heart failure is a serious complication of AF. An uncontrolled and irregular heart rate for long periods of time (weeks or months) can damage the heart muscle. The damaged heart cannot pump blood effectively to the rest of the body, resulting in heart failure.
AF also increases your risk of being hospitalized. One-third of men and one-half of women with AF end up going to the hospital because of AF symptoms. Hospital trips can be disruptive to your life and may cause significant physical and emotional distress to you and your family.
Despite these complications, AF can be effectively managed so that your risk of these complications is reduced. Learn more about how atrial fibrillation is treated in "Treating atrial fibrillation."