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Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a disorder that causes an irregular heart rate, or arrhythmia. Atrial fibrillation occurs when one or both of the upper chambers of the heart, the atria, quiver or ‘fibrillate’ rather than beat normally.

It’s important to recognise and treat atrial fibrillation to help prevent serious complications.

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation

Some people with atrial fibrillation have no symptoms. Others have:

Atrial fibrillation can occur as a one-off episode, or can come and go, or can persist.

Atrial fibrillation diagnosis

Atrial fibrillation is usually diagnosed on an electrocardiogram, or ECG. If you have atrial fibrillation, then your doctor will talk to you and examine you, and may order some other tests such as a 24 hour heart monitor (called a holter monitor) or an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound).

Atrial fibrillation treatments

Treatments for atrial fibrillation include:

  • medicines to make your heart beat normally again
  • procedures to make your heart beat normally again
  • medicines to slow your heart rate.

If you have atrial fibrillation, you are at a higher than normal risk of having a clot form in your heart. If this breaks off, it can cause a stroke.

So some people with atrial fibrillation are advised to take medicines to thin their blood, to reduce the risk of a stroke.

Long-term management of atrial fibrillation

Most people are able to manage their atrial fibrillation and lead a relatively normal life. To look after your heart, it’s important to take medications as prescribed, eat healthily, stay physically active, avoid smoking, look after your general health, and visit your doctor regularly.

Last reviewed: March 2017

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