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AFib: What is atrial fibrillation and how can it impact your health?
General Wellness

AFib: What is atrial fibrillation and how can it impact your health?

By Yehoshua Levine MD, Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology, Cardiology
Posted: February 19, 2021

Atrial fibrillation, often called AFib or AF, is the most common arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm) in adults.

AFib occurs when the top chambers of the heart, the atria, beat in an erratic and irregular way. This can occur from time to time — paroxysmal AFib — or all the time —persistent or longstanding persistent AFib.

How does AFib impact people? What sort of issues are associated with it?

AFib leads to many problems that can shorten someone's life expectancy and can negatively impact quality of life. It can cause troublesome symptoms and can cause stroke and congestive heart failure.

What causes AFib?

AFib is a condition of the heart’s electrical system, where areas in the heart cause abnormal heart rhythms.

Many people — especially older adults with other conditions such as hypertension, but also younger and healthy individuals — have heart muscle that has the arrhythmogenic tendency to develop AFib.

Many who have arrhythmogenic heart tissue may not develop AFib unless there is a "second hit,” meaning something else that happens or another condition that develops that makes the heart develop AFib. Some of these conditions are sleep apnea, stress, weight gain, infection or too much caffeine.

When these other conditions are controlled, the AFib may also become more controlled.

AFib does not usually go away on its own, but it can be controlled and treated in many ways using a multidisciplinary strategy involving the patient and healthcare team. 

Are there any foods that trigger AFib? Should I change my diet?

As noted above, some people have a tendency for AFib but do not actually develop it clinically until something else happens.

For some people, that “something else” may be too much caffeine or alcohol or salty foods that cause strain on the heart. In clinical practice, only a small minority of patients need to change their diet to avoid AFib.

How is AFib diagnosed?

AFib can be diagnosed in many ways.

  • Some feel their heart fluttering or pounding in their chest.
  • Some feel short of breath and tired.
  • Some develop congestive heart failure due to AFib.
  • Some have AFib picked up incidentally by their doctors.
  • Some do not know that they have AFib until they have a stroke.

What is the best treatment for AFib?

AFib is most effectively treated early. The earlier it is diagnosed and treated, the better. AFib is much less likely to cause additional problems if it is identified early and properly treated.

The best AFib treatment involves lifestyle adjustment and targeted electrophysiologic therapy.

Patients with AFib should see a heart rhythm specialist — like a cardiac electrophysiologist, a cardiologist with subspecialty training in heart rhythm problems — who is specially trained in treating the causes of AFib. 

For many people, this treatment involves a minimally invasive procedure called an ablation. An ablation is the targeted destruction of arrhythmogenic heart tissue, which is done with small thin tubes called catheters that are advanced to the heart from intravenous lines in the groin. 

AFib ablation is the most effective treatment of AFib. It can reduce AFib by approximately 90% in many patients, especially patients who have been diagnosed with AFib relatively recently. This is in contrast with medications, which can reduce AFib by only 30 to 40%.


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How could an ablation change the course of someone’s AFib?

In the best-case scenario, when someone with paroxysmal AFib who has two episodes every week gets an ablation, they won’t have AFib at all anymore. In other cases, we could expect to see that person go from two episodes per week to only two episodes per year after the procedure.

Is AFib ablation safe — and what should I expect?

AFib ablation is extremely safe.

The procedure takes approximately two hours and occurs in an outpatient setting. Patients usually go home the same day.

AFib ablation is becoming the standard of care as the first line therapy for treatment of AFib.

What if the patient is worried about COVID-19 — should they delay AFib treatment?

No. For AFib treatment, the earlier it’s treated, the better. We employ COVID-19 protocols to keep you safe, and the procedure is done on an outpatient basis, which limits your time in the hospital or clinic.

At Methodist, we perform hundreds of AFib ablations every year, and we see patients referred from hundreds of miles away. Our staff and doctors are very experienced doing this procedure, and we are here to help you.