An arrhythmia is any problem with the speed or pattern of your heartbeat. 

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a common type of arrhythmia. It causes fast, chaotic electrical signals in the atria, leading to poor functioning of your heart. It also affects how much blood your heart can pump out to your body.

Afib may occur once in a while and go away on its own, or it may continue for longer periods and need treatment. It can lead to serious problems, such as stroke. Your healthcare provider will need to monitor and manage it.

What happens during atrial fibrillation? 

The heart has an electrical system that sends signals to control the heartbeat. As signals move through the heart, they tell the heart’s upper chambers (atria) and lower chambers (ventricles) when to squeeze (contract) and relax. This lets blood move through the heart and out to the body and lungs.

With AFib, the atria receive abnormal signals. This causes them to contract in a fast and irregular way, and out of sync with the ventricles. When this happens, the atria also have a harder time moving blood into the ventricles. Blood may then pool in the atria, which increases the risk for blood clots and stroke. The ventricles also may contract too quickly and irregularly. As a result, they may not pump blood to the body and lungs as well as they should. This can weaken the heart muscle over time and cause heart failure.

Watchman Implant to Reduce Stroke Risk

CoxHealth was the first health system in the area to offer the Watchman device, technology that revolutionizes the way patients with Afib are protected against the risk of stroke. The tiny device (it's only 21 - 33 millimeters in size) is implanted during a non-invasive surgery and keeps blood from pooling in the heart and forming clots, which could otherwise lead to stroke. This treatment is revolutionary for patients who aren't able to take blood thinners to prevent clots. Ask your physician if Watchman might be right for you.

How is atrial fibrillation treated?

Medication: Afib may be treated with medicine to help slow your heartbeat, or to help your heart beat more regularly. Anti-clotting medicine may be prescribed to help reduce your risk for blood clots and stroke. 

Electrical cardioversion: Treatment may also include electrical cardioversion, where your healthcare provider uses special pads or paddles to send one or more brief electrical shocks to your heart. This can help reset your heartbeat to normal.

Ablation: During this procedure, long, thin tubes called catheters are threaded through a blood vessel to your heart. There, the catheters send out hot or cold energy to the areas causing the abnormal signals. This energy destroys the problem tissue or cells, improving the chances that your heart will stay in normal rhythm without medicine. If your heart rate and rhythm can’t be controlled, you may need ablation and a pacemaker. These will help control the heart rate and regularity of the heartbeat.

Surgery: During surgery, your healthcare provider may use different methods to create scar tissue in the areas of your heart causing the abnormal signals. The scar tissue disrupts the abnormal signals and may stop AFib from occurring.

What are the complications of atrial fibrillation?

Complications can include blood clots, stroke and heart failure if the heart muscle weakens so much that it can no longer pump blood well.