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Atrial Fibrillation: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Authored by The Rx Advocates, / Medically Reviewed by Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS
Last Updated: February 6, 2022

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a type of heart arrhythmia. The name is often shortened to AFib. It is the most commonly treated type of heart arrhythmia.

Arrhythmia is when the heart beats differently than it should. It could be too fast, too slow, or irregularly.

The human heart has four chambers that blood moves through. They are:

  • Right Atrium
  • Left Atrium
  • Right Ventricle
  • Left Ventricle

The heart moves all the blood through the body, beating around 100,000 times each day.

Blood comes into the heart through the atria at the top. The atria contract, and blood is pumped down to the ventricles, then back to the rest of the body.

The sinoatrial node (SA node) is a cluster of cells in the upper wall of the right atrium. The SA node is the heart’s natural pacemaker, it creates the electrical impulses that make the atria chambers contract.

A normal heartbeat requires the atria and ventricles to beat in the correct order. When that does not happen, someone has an arrhythmia.

With atrial fibrillation, the atria chambers beat out of sync with the ventricles. This can cause a faster than normal heartbeat or palpitations.

 

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

Sometimes a person can have atrial fibrillation but not have any symptoms. Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Sensations of a fluttering or pounding heartbeat

There are also different levels of atrial fibrillation:

  • Paroxysmal- symptoms come and go. Sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes longer. Symptoms can go away on their own.
  • Persistent- symptoms stay, the heart does not go back to a normal rate by itself. Medication or a procedure called cardioversion is needed to restore a normal heartbeat.
  • Permanent- the irregular heartbeat lasts for more than a year Patients need medication to prevent blood clots and control their heart rate.

 

Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

With a normal heartbeat, the SA node directs the electrical impulses through the heart with a normal heartbeat. This does not happen when someone has atrial fibrillation. Multiple electrical impulses happen, causing an abnormal rhythm.

The abnormal rhythm does not allow the atria to correctly pump blood into the ventricles correctly.

There are multiple conditions that can contribute to atrial fibrillation. Some common causes include:

Less common causes can include:

  • Pericarditis– inflammation of the pericardium surrounding the heart muscle.
  • Hyperthyroidism– an overactive thyroid gland.
  • Viral infection

Sometimes atrial fibrillation can be caused by alcohol use, certain drugs, excessive caffeine use, or an electrolyte imbalance.

 

Atrial Fibrillation Complications

Atrial fibrillation has many effects on the body. In addition to feeling the symptoms listed above, Atrial fibrillation can increase the risks of other health issues.

Brain

Atrial fibrillation increases the risk of having a stroke. This risk also increases more as someone with atrial fibrillation gets older. When the heart muscle is not contracting correctly, blood can stay in the atria longer than it should. This can create a blood clot.

If a blood clot forms, it can travel through the blood vessels and into the brain. The clot can block blood flow to parts of the brain, causing a stroke.

Anyone having signs of a stroke needs to call 911 immediately. Every minute matters. Signs of a stroke include:

  • One side of the face drooping.
  • Numbness or weakness in an arm or leg on one side of the body.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Confusion in speaking or understanding speech.
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • Severe headache without a cause.

Lungs

Atrial fibrillation can also cause irregular blood flow to the lungs. The result is a fluid back up in the lungs, causing shortness of breath and fatigue.

Legs and Muscles

Fluid can build up in the feet, ankles, and legs of someone with atrial fibrillation. It can also cause muscle weakness, making it harder to do normal activities and exercise.

Other Effects

Atrial fibrillation can also cause:

  • Weight gain
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness

 

Treatments for Atrial Fibrillation

There are three goals in the treatment of atrial fibrillation:

  • Correcting the heart rate
  • Correcting the heart rhythm
  • Preventing blood clots

Heart Rate and Heart Rhythm

To slow down a heart rate that is too fast, doctors may prescribe beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers.

To restore a regular heart rhythm:

  • Medications like sodium channel blockers or potassium channel blockers may be prescribed.
  • Electrical cardioversion– a painless procedure that shocks the heart back into a normal rhythm.
  • Catheter ablation– a procedure that destroys cells sending out signals that cause the abnormal heart rhythm.

Preventing Blood Clots

One of the major causes of premature death for people with atrial fibrillation is stroke. Preventing blood clots is a major part of treating atrial fibrillation.

Anticoagulant medication is the primary treatment to prevent blood clots. This has been traditionally done with warfarin. But, there are multiple food interactions and frequent blood testing required while using warfarin.

DOACs (direct-oral oral anticoagulants) are now preferred over warfarin. This is because there are no known food interactions with this type of medication. They also require less blood monitoring.

Two commonly prescribed DOACs are Eliquis and Xarelto. Both of these medications are factor Xa inhibitors. Factor Xa is an enzyme that the body uses in the process of creating blood clots. 

DOACs work by binding to factor Xa. This reduces the amount of factor Xa that can be used in the formation of blood clots. By using DOACs patients do not need to worry about how much vitamin K is in the foods they eat each day, as they would with taking warfarin.

 

Paying for Prescription Atrial Fibrillation Medications

Atrial fibrillation is a serious health concern. Getting the proper medication to prevent blood clots is important. These medications can be very expensive, especially if a patient does not have prescription drug coverage.

No one should have to decide if they can afford the medications they need to stay healthy. Especially medications that can prevent a life-threatening event.

At The Rx Advocates, we help people get the prescriptions they need every month at a reasonable cost. We are not an insurance company or discount program.

The Rx Advocates do not issue coupons. We connect people with the patient assistance programs offered by pharmaceutical companies. We take care of all the paperwork for patients to get them into the programs.

We charge one low monthly rate for this service. One medication per month is only $60, which is a huge savings for name-brand prescription medications. We can help people with more than one medication.

Please contact us today to see how much money we can save you on the medications you need to live your best life.

 

Sources:

CDC. Atrial Fibrillation. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/atrial_fibrillation.htm

National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute. Arrhythmia. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/arrhythmia

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MedicineNet. Medical Definition of SA Node. https://www.medicinenet.com/sa_node/definition.htm

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Medline Plus. Hyperthyroidism. https://medlineplus.gov/hyperthyroidism.html

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