Have you ever felt your heart flutter, race or skip a beat? Most of us have at some point. But if this happens frequently, you may have atrial fibrillation (AFib).
AFib puts you at greater risk of blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related issues.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of AFib and when to seek medical treatment are important, especially for women, who tend to be diagnosed with AFib much later than men. One reason is that many women don’t experience the same aggressive symptoms that men do and may ignore the more subtle signs of AFib, such as weakness and fatigue.
“Women in particular should pay close attention to the signs and symptoms of AFib because they often have worse outcomes than men for a variety of reasons, including waiting too long to seek treatment,” says Poulina Uddin, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic.
“The important thing to remember is that once diagnosed, AFib can be managed with proper treatment,” she says.
AFib is an abnormal rhythm of the two upper chambers of the heart. Normally, the upper chambers contract, followed by the two lower chambers (the ventricles), in a steady pattern.
With AFib, the electrical impulses that control this rhythm become irregular. Blood doesn’t flow as well from the upper chambers to the lower chambers. When this happens, symptoms may arise.
AFib episodes may be sporadic, or recurring. Some people have no symptoms at all.
In addition to a rapid or irregular heartbeat, symptoms of AFib may include:
- Unexplained shortness of breath
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Extreme fatigue
Men have higher rates of AFib. However, the number of men and women living with AFib is about the same. This is largely because women tend to live longer than men.
AFib increases the risk of stroke among women over age 75 by 20 percent, according to the American Heart Association.
Women are also more likely to have frequent and longer-lasting AFib episodes than men.
Most people with AFib are 65 and older.
Major medical risk factors for AFib include:
- Obesity or excess weight
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease, heart failure
Prevalence of these risk factors vary between men and women.
In women, high blood pressure and heart valve disease are more likely to lead to AFib.
In men, coronary artery disease and previous heart attack are more common risk factors for AFib.
AFib is diagnosed with help from an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). During the test, electrodes are attached to the chest to record electrical activity in the heart and check for different heart conditions.
An EKG can be performed during an office visit. Sometimes patients are asked to wear a heart monitor at home to record their heart rhythm over time.
Severity of symptoms, stroke risk factors and other related conditions are considered when deciding on a treatment plan for AFib.
Medications are often given to reduce the risk of stroke and control heart rate and rhythm. Lifestyle modifications, including weight loss and exercise, are often part of a treatment plan.
Procedures may be considered for carefully selected patients. Catheter ablation is a minimally invasive procedure that targets the heart tissue that generates the irregular heartbeats.