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Atrial Fibrillation Health Center

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Atrial Fibrillation - Topic Overview

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (say "AY-tree-uhl fih-bruh-LAY-shun") is the most common type of irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).

Normally, the heart beats in a strong, steady rhythm. In atrial fibrillation, a problem with the heart's electrical system causes the two upper parts of the heart, the atria, to quiver, or fibrillate.

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Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, happens when your normal heartbeat or rhythm is thrown off. Yes, it can be dangerous. Your heart may not be able to pump enough blood. On the other hand, millions of people with long-lasting AFib live quite well, says Gordon F. Tomaselli, MD, chief of the division of cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "It's very possible to live a normal life for many years." So let's clear up those ideas that may be limiting you when they don't...

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The quivering upsets the normal rhythm between the atria and the lower parts of the heart, the ventricles. And the ventricles may beat fast and without a regular rhythm.

This is dangerous because if the heartbeat isn't strong and steady, blood can collect, or pool, in the atria. And pooled blood is more likely to form clots. Clots can travel to the brain, block blood flow, and cause a stroke.

Atrial fibrillation can also lead to heart failure.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

Conditions that damage or strain the heart commonly cause atrial fibrillation. These include:

Other possible causes include:

  • Other medical problems, such as heart failure, lung disease, pneumonia, or a high thyroid level.
  • Heart surgery.
  • Heavy alcohol use. This includes having more than 3 drinks a day over many years as well as drinking a large amount of alcohol at one time (binge drinking).

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Feeling out of breath.
  • Feeling weak and tired.
  • Feeling like the heart is fluttering, racing, or pounding (palpitations).
  • Feeling like the heart is beating unevenly.
  • Having chest pain.
  • Fainting.

Sometimes atrial fibrillation doesn't cause obvious symptoms.

If you have symptoms, see your doctor. Finding and treating atrial fibrillation right away can help you avoid serious problems.

How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?

The doctor will ask questions about your past health, do a physical exam, and order tests.

The best way to find out if you have atrial fibrillation is to have an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). An EKG is a test that checks for problems with the heart's electrical activity.

You might also have lab tests and an echocardiogram. An echocardiogram can show how well your heart is pumping and whether your heart valves are damaged.

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