University of Pennsylvania Health System

Penn Health and Wellness

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Atrial Fibrillation: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention Methods

Does your heart ever feel like it’s racing or doing somersaults in your chest?

Approximately 2.5 million Americans experience atrial fibrillation (AFib) each year. This common heart disorder occurs when electrical signals in the heart become irregular, causing the heart to beat out of rhythm. The normal range for a heart rate is 60 to 100 beats a minute while the heart rate in atrial fibrillation may range from 100 to 175 beats a minute.

Causes and Symptoms
Causes of atrial fibrillation vary and range from existing heart problems to infections to chronic conditions like obesity and sleep apnea.  Common risk factors and conditions that may cause AFib are:
  • Congenital heart defects (defects you are born with)
  • Heart attack, or a damaged heart muscle from a past heart attack
  • Heart valve diseases
  • Heart failure or coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Hyperthyroidism 
  • Substances or drugs, including alcohol, caffeine, or stimulants 
Symptoms of atrial fibrillation vary and many people are unaware they have AFib until it’s diagnosed during a regular physical exam. While the most common symptom is a fast or irregular heartbeat, others who have AFib may also experience lightheadedness, shortness of breath, lack of energy and chest pain. The biggest danger of atrial fibrillation is to leave it untreated.  If you experience symptoms, call your physician immediately.

How You Can Defend Against AFib
Since atrial fibrillation is often caused by conditions that cause damage or place extra strain on the heart, making simple lifestyle changes to improve your heart health may help protect against AFib.
  • Don't smoke. Avoid alcohol and stimulants.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet that includes fish, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and olive oil. 
  • Stay active. Get regular exercise on most days of the week. Your physician can suggest a safe level of exercise for you. 
  • Control your cholesterol and blood pressure. 
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar in your target range.
  • Find ways to cope with stress.
For additional information on atrial fibrillation and treatment options, download Penn’s Guide to AFib.

Why Choose Penn Medicine for AFib Care
Penn Medicine’s Cardiac Arrhythmia Program is one of the largest in the country and performs more than six times the national standard of AFib ablations procedures. So patients like Dominic, a retired Philadelphia police officer, receive the most advanced care from an experienced team of physicians, nurses and support staff.

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