Did you know this version of Internet Explorer is out of date?

To get the latest experience from our website, please upgrade your browser.

Have a drug or medical device concern?

call 844-826-2761

Atrial Fibrillation and Its Treatment

Carol Baldwin

Last updated: October 20, 2016 7:25 pm

On This Page

While men are more likely to have atrial fibrillation (also known as AFib or AF) than women, the heart condition affects millions of people in the United States. Those numbers are steadily increasing, says the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). 1

NHLBI goes on to report that white males are more susceptible than African-Americans or Hispanics, and that the risk for AFib increases with age. 2

Statistics from a review article in Circulation, a journal published by the American Heart Association (AHA), are even more alarming, claiming that “Over 150 000 new cases of AF are diagnosed each year. “ 3

The authors describe AF as “typically characterized by chaotic, disorganized electrical activity in the upper chambers of the heart…the upper chambers of the heart (atria) quiver rapidly and irregularly (fibrillate).” 4

Types of AFib

According to NHLBI, there are three types of AF: paroxysmal, persistent and permanent. In paroxysmal AF, the onset and cessation of faulty electrical signals is sudden. With persistent AF, the duration of faulty signals lasts for more than one week and may stop with or without treatment. In permanent AF, normal heart rhythm can’t be restored without treatment. 5

While heart rhythm disturbance may not be immediately life-threatening, it can lead to increased risk of stroke or heart failure. 6

Atrial Fibrillation Causes

NHLBI cites the causes for atrial fibrillation as stemming from damage to the heart’s electrical system. 7

According to the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, people at greatest risk of AF include those with the following conditions:

  • Congenital or structural heart defects
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Pericarditis — inflammation of the heart sac or membranes
  • Family history or genetics
  • Sick sinus syndrome — when the heart’s electrical signals don’t fire properly
  • Heart attack
  • Rheumatic heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • High blood pressure
  • Recent surgery 8

Additionally, these underlying conditions and lifestyle behaviors also can increase AF risk:

  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Lung disease
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Consuming alcohol, especially binge drinking
  • Having caffeine
  • Being under psychological stress
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep apnea 9

Symptoms of AFib

NHLBI explains that usually in AFib, the heart’s lower chambers (ventricles) contract too rapidly, before they completely fill with blood, which may cause the lungs and body to not receive enough blood. This may produce signs and symptoms such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Fatigue
  • Palpitations or fluttering
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness 10

However, not everyone experiences all of these symptoms. Some people exhibit no symptoms of AFib.
Staying heart healthy may help in preventing atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation, also called AF or AFib, “occurs if rapid, disorganized electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers — called the atria … to contract very fast and irregularly.” 11

Preventing Atrial Fibrillation

If you have AFib, you may not notice any symptoms, but you may face a greater risk of having a stroke. Keeping your heart healthy may play an important role in preventing atrial fibrillation. 12

The Mayo Clinic, American Heart Association and others offer the following tips for keeping your heart healthy:

  • Follow a healthy diet: limiting saturated and trans fat; avoiding foods high in cholesterol; eating whole grains, vegetables and fruits every day; and limiting salt intake.
  • Don’t smoke, or quit smoking.
  • Aim to be physically active.
  • Stay or strive to be a healthy weight.
  • Work with your doctor to monitor any medications or medical conditions you have.
  • Limit your alcohol intake or avoid it altogether.
  • If you have diabetes, maintain a healthy blood sugar level.
  • Drink or eat caffeine products in moderation.
  • Drink enough fluids to stay hydrated: dehydration can lead to an electrolyte imbalance.
  • Get plenty of good-quality sleep. 13

Preventing Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism

Deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, refers to a blood clot that develops in a deep vein, usually in the leg. A blood clot causing a DVT could partially or completely prevent blood from traveling back to the heart. 14

A DVT blood clot could also break free and travel to the lungs. If a blood clot becomes stuck in your lungs and prevents blood flow, it is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). 15

These guidelines may help prevent blood clots:

  • Exercise regularly and don’t sit for long periods of time without moving.
  • When traveling by plane, move around occasionally or at least stretch your leg muscles, flex your feet or curl or press your toes down.
  • When traveling by car, take breaks every hour or so to stretch and walk around.
  • Avoid tight, short socks; instead, consider wearing compression stockings. 16

Symptoms of Blood Clot in Lung

Symptoms of a blood clot in the lung may often be nonspecific. Some examples of possible symptoms of blood clot in lung include:

  • Cough, often sudden, and sometimes is accompanied by bloody sputum.
  • Wheezing or sudden shortness of breath, either while resting or moving.
  • Chest pain, sometimes sharp or stabbing, burning, aching or dull.
  • Irregular, fast breathing or heart rate.
  • Leg pain or swelling in one or both legs.
  • Low blood pressure or weak pulse.
  • Lightheadedness, anxiety, dizziness, clammy skin and sweating. 17

Atrial Fibrillation Treatment and Pulmonary Embolism Treatment

One type of atrial fibrillation treatment and pulmonary embolism treatment is a medication called an anticoagulant, or blood thinner. Examples include warfarin (Coumadin) and rivaroxaban (Xarelto). 18

Another treatment for atrial fibrillation or pulmonary embolism is an inferior vena cava, or IVC, filter. These devices can be implanted in the inferior vena cava, the largest vein in the body, and are used for the intended purpose of collecting clots so they won’t travel to the lungs. 19

Some IVC filters are retrievable, and these have been associated with potentially dangerous side effects.

In addition, anticoagulant medications, such as Xarelto can cause bleeding which can be serious, and rarely may lead to death. 20

  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Explore Atrial Fibrillation: Who is at Risk. (Sept. 2014). http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/atrisk. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Explore Atrial Fibrillation: Who is at Risk. (Sept. 2014). http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/atrisk. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  3. Shea, J.B. and S.F. Sears. Cardiology Patient Page: A Patient’s Guide to Living with Atrial Fibrillation. (2015).http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/117/20/e340.full. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  4. Shea, J.B. and S.F. Sears. Cardiology Patient Page: A Patient’s Guide to Living with Atrial Fibrillation. (2015). http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/117/20/e340.full. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  5. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Explore Atrial Fibrillation: Types. (Sept. 2014). http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/types. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  6. Shea, J.B. and S.F. Sears. Cardiology Patient Page: A Patient’s Guide to Living with Atrial Fibrillation. (2015). http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/117/20/e340.full. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  7. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Explore Atrial Fibrillation: Causes. (Sept. 2014). http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/causes. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  8. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Explore Atrial Fibrillation: What is Atrial Fibrillation. (Sept. 2014). http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/atrisk. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  9. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Explore Atrial Fibrillation: What is Atrial Fibrillation. (Sept. 2014). http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/atrisk. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  10. U.S. National Library of Medicine PubMed Health. Atrial Fibrillation. (Jun. 2014). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0062932/. Accessed June 10, 2015. 

  11. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af 

  12. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af 

  13. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/prevention; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/expert-answers/healthy-heart/faq-20057842; http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Arrhythmia/AboutArrhythmia/Prevention-Strategies-for-Atrial-Fibrillation-AFib-or-AF_UCM_423784_Article.jsp; http://www.everydayhealth.com/hs/afib-pictures/prevent-afib/#03; http://www.everydayhealth.com/hs/afib-pictures/prevent-afib/#05 

  14. http://www.webmd.com/dvt/deep-vein-thrombosis-prevent-dvt 

  15. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/deep-vein-thrombosis/basics/definition/con-20031922 

  16. http://www.webmd.com/dvt/deep-vein-thrombosis-prevent-dvt; http://www.webmd.com/dvt/deep-vein-thrombosis-prevent-dvt?page=2; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pulmonary-embolism/basics/prevention/con-20022849 

  17. http://lungcancer.ucla.edu/adm_signs_bloodclot_lung.html 

  18. http://www.webmd.com/dvt/deep-vein-thrombosis-prevent-dvt 

  19. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/pe/treatment 

  20. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/DrugSafety/UCM280333.pdf; https://www.xareltohcp.com/about-xarelto/faq.html