When the Heart’s Aflutter, AFib May Be the Reason

When the Heart’s Aflutter, AFib May Be the Reason

Singers may croon that their love-struck hearts are all aflutter, but in real life, a fluttering heart can be a scary problem — atrial fibrillation, better known as AFib.

In a healthy heart, electrical signals travel through the muscle and make it beat regularly. With an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia), the heart doesn’t beat regularly. Instead, it can feel like your heart is flip-flopping, beating too fast, too slow or skipping beats. There are several different kinds of irregular heart rhythms, some can be normal variations in heartbeat, while other need medical attention. 

AFib Makes the Heart Beat Too Fast

AFib is one of the most common types of irregular heart rhythms. It speeds the heart rate up to 300 beats per minute or more. Some people may have chest pain or feel like their heart is racing or pounding inside their chest. On the other hand, some people with AFib may not feel any symptoms at all.

AFib may come on quickly between cycles of a normal heart rhythm, or it can become an ongoing or long-term heart problem that harms the heart’s ability to pump blood.

What Causes AFib?

Although it can happen by itself, AFib is most often linked to other health issues. For example, high blood pressure can damage the heart and upset its electrical signals. Valvular heart disease, coronary artery disease, sleep apnea and excessive alcohol use also boost the risk for AFib.

AFib and Stroke Risk

One of the reasons AFib is so dangerous is because it raises the risk for stroke. When the heart doesn’t beat normally, blood stays inside the heart’s chambers for too long. This can make a blood clot. The clot can travel and get lodged in the brain — causing a stroke. People with AFib have five times the risk of stroke than people without AFib.

Managing AFib

Here’s some good news: A study in the journal Circulation leaving site icon found that more than half of AFib cases may be avoidable when risk factors are controlled. Many doctors use a two-step plan for managing AFib. First, they find and fix changeable AFib and stroke risk factors. Second, they order blood thinners to keep blood clots from forming.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends these healthy lifestyle activities leaving site icon for managing AFib.

  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Limit saturated and trans fats and cholesterol. Nosh on plenty of veggies, fruits, and whole grains.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Keep a healthy weight.
  • Limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol.

All of the above promote healthy blood pressure — and that’s important. High blood pressure is the biggest risk factor for AFib. You can also cut your risk for stroke by managing your cholesterol and keeping your arteries healthy.

Control your blood glucose if you have diabetes. Also, be sure to take all your medicines as prescribed, and let your doctor know if you have any AFib symptoms or concerns about your medicines. If you take a blood thinner, you may need to have your blood checked regularly.

If you’re worried that you may have AFib or other type of irregular heart rhythm, see your health care provider. 

Sources: Atrial Fibrillation: Overview, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2024; What Is Atrial Fibrillation, leaving site icon American Heart Association, 2023; Atrial Fibrillation, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022; What Is Atrial Fibrillation?, leaving site icon National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 2022

Originally published 8/15/2016; Revised 2019, 2022, 2024