What Is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)? (video)

Learn about causes and treatment for irregular heartbeat

Learn about causes and treatment for irregular heartbeat

Douglas Gibson, MD, a cardiologist and director of cardiac electrophysiology at Scripps Clinic and the Prebys Cardiovascular Institute, explains the causes and symptoms of atrial fibrillation (AFib).

Video transcript

What is AFib?

Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal rhythm of the upper chambers of the heart. What happens is the upper chambers beat very fast and erratic. They quit pumping blood effectively and that causes two problems.

Number one, patients may feel bad with atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation can cause symptoms of lightheadedness, dizziness and shortness of breath.

The second big problem with atrial fibrillation is as the upper chambers quit pumping blood effectively, blood can pool in the upper chambers and that can increase the risk of stroke.

What is the difference between AFib and tachycardia?

Tachycardia is basically a fancy word for racing heart. It's a simple word that basically means that the heart goes too fast. There's other things that can cause tachycardia besides atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is the most common reason probably for tachycardia.

Is AFib a type of heart failure?

Atrial fibrillation is not a type of heart failure but it can lead to heart failure. If the heart beats too fast for too long, that can cause the lower pumping chambers to fail, and that can cause fluid to retain in the lungs and swelling in the legs — all the symptoms that we would typically associate with heart failure.

What is a heart murmur?

A heart murmur results from abnormal flow through the heart. That's typically associated with valvular heart disease. It's something that as the doctor listens to your chest with a stethoscope, they will pick up an audible noise that's described as a murmur. Some murmurs are benign. Some murmurs need to be investigated further.

How can you tell if you have an irregular heartbeat?

You can tell if you have an irregular heartbeat by a sensation in your chest usually. Oftentimes patients will feel palpitations, racing, a thumping in their chest, that sort of symptomatology. A racing heartbeat may also cause symptoms of lightheadedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, so oftentimes patients will not feel it in their chest, but they'll feel generally ill.

You can also take your pulse if you have a blood pressure machine at home or are skilled at finding your pulse. You will feel the heart going fast, get a sense of what's normal, and then at times you'll feel the heart really trucking away. 

What is the Watchman device?

The Watchman device is a device that's implanted in the left atrial appendage. It prevents stroke without needing blood thinners. It's an alternative to blood thinners for patients that can't take blood thinners because of bleeding risk. What it does is it prevent strokes.

How do you find the right cardiologist for you?

The way to find the right cardiologist is to go meet with people. Sometimes you have to meet with more than one. First of all, you want a respected individual that's done all the proper training and has all the proper board certification. [Consider] our cardiologists affiliated with Scripps. We do a good job recruiting good cardiologists and vetting them before we actually hire them.

One of the more important things is to find somebody that you can trust and have a good relationship. You've got to be able to trust them, and that trust leads to following their advice and getting good information from them.

Watch more Ask the Expert videos now for quick answers to common medical questions.

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