Atrial Fibrillation and Inflammation

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 28, 2022
4 min read

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is related to inflammation in your body, like other heart disease. Some research shows that inflammation can cause AFib or make it worse if you already have it. Other studies seem to show that atrial fibrillation itself can spark inflammation. Both things may be true, but we need more research to know exactly what the connection is.

AFib is one of the most common types of arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats). It happens when the action of the upper and lower portions of your heart are out of sync. Experts predict that around 12.1 million people in the U.S. will have the condition by 2030.

It can cause serious symptoms and even death. Researchers hope that learning more about atrial fibrillation – including the role of inflammation – can lead to more and better ways to treat it.

C-reactive protein is made in your liver and circulates in your bloodstream. It’s also a marker of inflammation in your body. Higher levels of C-reactive proteins in your blood signal that you have an infection or inflammation.

Studies have found a link between AFib and high levels of C-reactive proteins. Some researchers think this suggests that inflammation might cause AFib, help cause it, or keep it going.

Other research has shown that inflammation can change the structure and electrical activity (electrophysiology) of your heart. These changes are known to make your heart more vulnerable to AFib.

Experts also think inflammation could trigger AFib because the condition makes your blood more likely to clot. This tendency is linked to system-wide inflammation and can promote scar-like damage to your heart called fibrosis. Fibrosis is thought to help cause AFib.

Animal studies have found a link between higher levels of blood-clotting enzymes and flare-ups of atrial fibrillation. But there’s limited data for humans.

Biopsies of heart tissue from people with AFib have shown evidence of inflammation and the damage it can cause. That further makes the case for a link between the two.

Not only might inflammation help trigger AFib, but atrial fibrillation itself is thought to promote inflammation. One sign of this is the fact that people with AFib have higher levels of C-reactive proteins even when there’s no other reason for it. Some researchers have even suggested that AFib could be an autoimmune disorder.

Inflammatory heart conditions like pericarditis (inflammation of the membrane surrounding your heart) and myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) have been linked to AFib. Atrial fibrillation is also more likely to affect people with conditions that cause widespread inflammation, like:

Also, you’re at higher risk of atrial fibrillation after a coronary artery bypass. Having this surgery triggers an inflammatory response throughout your body. One study found that people with high levels of inflammation after a bypass operation were more likely to get AFib or have it happen again.

Some experts believe that treating inflammation in your body might lower your risk for AFib or stop inflammation from worsening the condition.

Doctors don’t have enough information about AFib and inflammation to recommend any particular treatments at this point. But possible therapies might include:

Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs). Ace inhibitors are drugs that treat high blood pressure and heart problems. ARBs are drugs that also treat high blood pressure. Research has found that these treatments also seem to have anti-inflammatory benefits.

Statins. Doctors use statins to reduce your cholesterol. But these drugs also have other benefits. Research has shown that they could reduce the effects of inflammation in heart disease. So some experts believe they could do the same for inflammation linked to AFib. Out of five studies done on statins and AFib, four found that the drugs helped prevent the condition. We need more research to confirm if this drug is helpful for AFib.

Steroids. Since they’re known to lower inflammation, some researchers think steroids could help prevent and treat AFib. One study found that the steroid drug methylprednisolone could help stop AFib from happening again. It also led to lower levels of C-reactive proteins.

Fish oil. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like tuna and salmon are known to be anti-inflammatory as well as heart-healthy. Doctors use them to treat symptoms of inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. One study found that a diet rich in fish oil was linked to a lower risk of having AFib. Another found that people who took omega-3 fatty acids after a coronary artery bypass were less likely to get atrial fibrillation. But one large study, involving nearly 48,000 people, found no such link.

Vitamin C. This antioxidant vitamin has anti-inflammatory properties. One study found it reduced the risk for AFib after cardiac bypass graft surgery. Another found that it reduced the recurrence of AFib after cardioversion. That’s a procedure in which a doctor restores your heart rhythm by using mild electric shocks.