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Atrial fibrillation is a common form of arrhythmia, which means the heartbeat follows an irregular rhythm. It is associated with an ageing population and affects 1 in every 4 people aged over 80. It can cause blood clots and strokes and result in cardiovascular complications.
Atrial Fibrillation explained in first person
Professionals and patients explain how you live with the disease
There are many causes, the main being age.In addition, any heart disease can also aggravate this arrhythmia. There is a large group of people who have no heart disease, but who still suffer this arrhythmia due to hypertension.
Atrial fibrillation is a heart rhythm disorder (arrhythmia). Under normal conditions (sinus rhythm), both atria (left and right) expand and contract according to a uniform, rhythmic pattern in coordination with the two lower chambers (ventricles).
In the case of atrial fibrillation, however, expansion and contraction of the atria is disorganised, irregular and inefficient, which subsequently causes the ventricle to beat irregularly and produce an erratic pulse.
Anatomy of the heart
Atrial fibrillation is a disease that affects the upper chambers of the heart (the atria). The heart is divided into four chambers called the right atrium, the right ventricle, the left atrium and the left ventricle.
When they are healthy, the atria determine the heart’s rhythm and when they contract, they help fill the ventricles with blood. The ventricles are the lower chambers responsible for generating the force required to pump the blood from the heart. The right atrium and right ventricle receive deoxygenated blood returning from around the body and then pump it to the lungs. The left atrium and ventricle receive the blood after it is oxygenated in the lungs, before pumping it through the aortic artery to the rest of the body.
Each beat of the left ventricle can be detected by feeling a person’s pulse. The pulse is usually measured at the wrist, below the base of the thumb (radial artery), or on the side of the neck (carotid artery).
A normal heart rhythm is called a normal sinus rhythm. It is rhythmic, regular and can adapt to the body’s needs. The pulse is actually an indication of each heartbeat.
The heart rate and rhythm refer to different characteristics of the heart’s function. Rhythm refers to the regularity of the heartbeat. A normal sinus rhythm is regular. Heart rate is the name given to the number of heart beats per minute (bpm); it can be normal (between 60 and 100 bpm, although each person has a different value), rapid (tachycardia) or slow (bradycardia). The heart beats faster when exercising and more slowly when asleep. However, any alterations to this normal rhythm are called arrhythmia and this loss of regularity results in a reduced or elevated heart rate. There are many types of arrhythmia: from mild, insignificant arrhythmia up to very severe cases that require immediate attention.
Classification of Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation usually follows a recurrent evolution, in other words, most patients experience alternating periods of normal sinus rhythm and atrial fibrillation. In this context, atrial fibrillation is classified as:
Paroxysmal. This corresponds to short-lived episodes of atrial fibrillation (lasting for less than 1 week) which generally appear and disappear by themselves.
Persistent. The episodes are longer (lasting for more than 7 days) and some sort of procedure is often necessary to stop the atrial fibrillation and re-establish a normal sinus rhythm.
Permanent. In this case the doctor and the patient agree not to perform any other procedure to mantain the normal rythm (sinus), so it is accepted that the patient is constantly in atrial fibrilation.
This classification provides an approximate indication of whether the patient has an early or advanced stage of the disease. Nevertheless, it does not have any direct relation with the degree of severity or the risk of complications.
How many people are affected by Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of heart arrhythmia. It is a relatively rare disease in people under 40 years old (less than 1 in every 100), whereas approximately 1 in every 4 people over 80 has atrial fibrillation.
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Substantiated information by:
Alba Cano VallsNurseAtrial Fibrillation Unit
Eduard Guasch Casany
Josep Lluís Mont GirbauCardiologistAtrial Fibrillation Unit
Manel Castellà PericasCardiac SurgeonCardiovascular Surgery Head of Department
Published: 27 November 2018
Updated: 27 November 2018
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