Atrial fibrillation

Last reviewed: 21 Jul 2022

Medically Reviewed By: Dr Jay Shah

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Atrial Fibrillation: Everything You Need to Know

Atrial fibrillation is a common heart condition that causes an irregular, often abnormally fast heartbeat. In this guide, we discuss the symptoms, causes and treatment and how the condition can be connected to high blood pressure.


What is atrial fibrillation (AFib)?

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib or AF, is a common condition that causes an irregular, often abnormally fast heart rate. Some people can feel their heart ‘racing’, or experience a fluttering feeling in their chest, known as palpitations.

It may come and go – this is called paroxysmal atrial fibrillation – or it may be persistent. While it’s not life threatening, it’s considered serious because it in some cases it can lead to heart failure or stroke.


AFib symptoms

Heart palpitations are the most obvious symptom of atrial fibrillation. You may find your heart feels like it’s pounding, fluttering or beating irregularly, for a few seconds or even minutes. While a normal resting heart rate should be between 60 and 100 beats a minute, your heart may beat very fast – often considerably higher than 100 beats per minute. You can work our your heart rate by checking your pulse in your neck or wrist.

Other symptoms of AFib include:

  • Feeling tired or lethargic
  • Finding it harder to exercise
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling faint or lightheaded
  • Chest pains

If you have chest pains that come and go, you notice a sudden change in your heartbeat or your heart rate is consistently lower than 60 or above 100, see a GP or call 111. It’s important to get it checked out and rule out anything serious.


Call 999 if you have sudden chest pain that:

  • Spreads to your arms, back, neck or jaw
  • Makes your chest feel tight or heavy
  • Began with shortness of breath, sweating and feeling or being sick
  • Lasts more than 15 minutes

You could be having a heart attack. Call 999 immediately.


AFib causes

While the exact cause of atrial fibrillation isn’t known, it’s more common with age and in

people with other heart conditions, such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Atherosclerosis (a build up of plaque on the arteries)
  • Heart valve disease
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Cardiomyopathy (a condition affecting the heart muscles)
  • Pericarditis (inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart)

It’s also associated with other medical conditions, including pneumonia, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and pulmonary embolism.

But many people with atrial fibrillation won’t have any pre-existing conditions or risk factors – it can even affect those who are physically very fit.


Diagnosis and treatment

Checking your pulse can give you a good indication of whether you have atrial fibrillation, but your GP will investigate thoroughly before making a diagnosis. If they suspect you have atrial fibrillation, they may give you an electrocardiogram (ECG) and refer you to a heart specialist for further tests, including an echocardiogram, a chest x-ray and blood tests.

If you are found to have atrial fibrillation, you’ll be given a treatment plan. If your healthcare team can identify a cause, such as an overactive thyroid glad, for example, you may only need treatment for this.  If an underlying cause can’t be found, the treatment options are:


AFib and high blood pressure

While atrial fibrillation and high blood pressure are two separate conditions, they are interlinked. High blood pressure is a risk factor for atrial fibrillation, and those with high blood pressure in middle age are at increased risk for atrial fibrillation later in life.

Both increase the risk of stroke. In hypertension, the force of blood pushing against the arteries is too high, causing gradual damage to the arteries and the possibility that a weakened blood vessel may rupture in or near the brain. With atrial fibrillation, the rapid heartbeat allows blood to pool in the heart, which can cause clots to form and travel to the brain.

But even if you’re among the millions of people with high blood pressure or atrial fibrillation, there’s plenty you can do to minimise your chances of having a stroke. Take your medication as prescribed and follow the British Heart Foundation’s lifestyle recommendations:

  • Eat healthily, swapping to lower fat options and lean meats
  • Be physically active, aiming for a brisk half-hour walk every day
  • Quit smoking: 20 minutes after stopping, heart rate and blood pressure return to normal
  • Cut down on alcohol by switching to alcohol-free drinks or halving your units
  • Control high blood pressure by cutting down on salt and managing stress
  • Work on your cholesterol levels by eating more fibre and fewer saturated fats
  • Be mindful of your blood sugar levels, swapping sugary snacks for fruits and choose sugar-free drinks


Final thoughts

Most of us would admit we could be doing more to look after our health, and the recommendations above apply to us all. But if you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension or atrial fibrillation, it’s even more important to make healthy choices and minimise the risks. Monitoring your heart rate and blood pressure regularly and knowing your triggers is a great first step.



Aktiia Team Written by The Aktiia Team

Our mission is to help people live free from hypertension.

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