Atrial fibrillation affects over 2.5 million people in the United States. People with atrial fibrillation have issues with blood flow in the heart due to an irregular heartbeat. It is caused by disrupted or scrambled signals to the muscles in the upper chamber of the heart, or atria, causing them to contract out of phase with the ventricles below. Blood then pools in the atria rather than properly circulating. The most common type of arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation can cause blood clots to form, possibly leading to a stroke.
Risk of atrial fibrillation rises with age, but there are a number of other factors that can make people of all ages more vulnerable to the condition. Chronic arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation can run in families, so if your parents or grandparents have had it, it may happen to you. People with heart disease or high blood pressure are more likely to develop the kind of damage that causes fibrillation, as are people with certain other chronic conditions. Alcoholic drinks and particularly binge drinking can trigger an episode.
Beyond not drinking, there are other things you can do to protect yourself. Caffeine and other stimulants are also associated with disrupted signals t0o the heart muscles. Anti-coagulant medications are sometimes prescribed to people who are especially at risk, or who have had fibrillation incidents in the past in order to prevent a recurrence. Other drugs, such as beta blockers, which lower the heart rate are sometimes given to people who have had fibrillation as well.
Fibrillation is sometimes asymptomatic, with no obvious indication that there is anything wrong. When there are symptoms, they can be chronic or only occasional, called paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, in which the symptoms go away after a few minutes to a few hours. Symptoms include heart palpitations or even pain in the chest, or unusual pain or fatigue after exercise or some other type of exertion. Shortness of breath or unusual swelling—known as edema—can also indicate atrial fibrillation. None of these symptoms are unique to this condition but they all require medical attention in any case.