is afib life threatening?
Most commonly, the heart rate will be unusually fast with this condition; but it is possible for the heart rate to be within accepted limits or slower and still be in atrial fibrillation.
You can measure your heart rate by feeling the pulse in your wrist or neck. A normal heart rate, when you are resting, should be between 60 and 100 beats a minute. In atrial fibrillation, it may be over 140 beats a minute.
Atrial fibrillation is defined in various ways, depending on how it affects you:
When the heart beats normally, its muscular walls contract (tighten and squeeze) to force blood out and around the body. They then relax, so the heart can fill with blood again. This process is repeated every time the heart beats.
Atrial fibrillation occurs when abnormal electrical impulses suddenly start firing in the atria (upper chambers of the heart).
These impulses override the heart's natural pacemaker, which can no longer control the rhythm of the heart. The atria contract randomly and sometimes so fast that the heart muscle cannot relax properly between contractions. This reduces the heart's efficiency and performance and causes a highly irregular pulse rate.
Atrial fibrillation can lead to a number of problems, including:
Some people with atrial fibrillation have no symptoms and are completely unaware that their heart rate is irregular.
Find out more about the symptoms of atrial fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disturbance and affects up to 800,000 people in the UK.
The cause of atrial fibrillation is not fully understood, but it tends to occur in certain groups of people and may be triggered by certain situations, such as drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or smoking.
The condition can affect adults of any age or gender but:
Atrial fibrillation is more likely to occur in people with other conditions, like:
Find out more about the causes of atrial fibrillation and how it's diagnosed
Atrial fibrillation is generally not life threatening, many people live normal healthy lives with this condition, but it can be uncomfortable and often needs treatment.
Atrial fibrillation is generally not life threatening, many people live normal healthy lives with this condition, but it can be uncomfortable and often needs treatment. This condition increases your risk by about four to five times of having a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) or stroke.
Considering atrial fibrillation disrupts your heartbeat, you may be surprised to learn that the condition alone isn’t usually life-threatening.
But atrial fibrillation causes potentially deadly complications like a stroke. If you have atrial fibrillation, your chances of suffering a stroke are five times higher compared to people who don’t have the arrhythmia.
Our team at Woodlands Heart and Vascular Institute has helped many patients prevent atrial fibrillation and its complications with whole-person care that supports their long-term heart health. Here, we give you the rundown on atrial fibrillation and how it can threaten your life.
Atrial fibrillation is a heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) that causes rapid, chaotic muscle contractions in the heart’s upper chambers. Instead of producing strong muscle contractions, the upper chamber muscles flutter. That means blood can’t flow through your heart properly.
The sluggish blood flow caused by atrial fibrillation allows blood to pool, especially in a pouch-like area of the left upper chamber called the left atrial appendage. Blood thickens when it slows or pools, creating the perfect environment for blood clots to develop in the appendage.
Atrial fibrillation on its own doesn’t usually cause a heart attack. But if you have atrial fibrillation together with other cardiovascular conditions, especially coronary artery disease (clogged arteries) and high blood pressure (hypertension), your chances of having a heart attack increase. Unfortunately, these conditions frequently occur together.
Atrial fibrillation causes two serious complications, stroke and heart failure:
Atrial fibrillation can pose a serious threat to your life by causing a stroke. In fact, at least one-third of people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation have strokes. A stroke occurs when a blood clot caused by atrial fibrillation leaves your heart and travels to your brain. The blood clot can easily block the artery, causing a stroke.
Heart failure (congestive heart failure) occurs when your heart can’t pump enough blood to your body. Atrial fibrillation prevents heart muscles from contracting with the strength needed to push enough blood through your heart and out to your body. As a result, people with atrial fibrillation are three times more likely to develop heart failure.
You could also develop heart failure first, and then it increases your risk of developing atrial fibrillation. Heart failure is often caused by heart inflammation, blocked coronary arteries, and high blood pressure. Heart failure also increases your risk of serious complications like kidney failure, fluid buildup in your lungs, stroke, and death.
In the United States, 3 to 6 million people have atrial fibrillation. You can avoid being one of them if you recognize your risks and take steps to lower them.
The major risk factors for atrial fibrillation (and heart failure and coronary artery disease) include:
If you have atrial fibrillation (Afib), your heart has episodes when it beats irregularly. The condition can cause troubling symptoms and serious medical complications, including blood clots that can lead to stroke and heart failure.
Afib is a type of arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rhythm.
It’s important to understand Afib complications so you can take steps to prevent them. You also should be aware of the warning signs so you know when to seek medical treatment.
People with Afib have a significantly higher risk of stroke than the average population. They also tend to have more severe strokes with more serious complications and a higher chance of death from stroke.
During an episode of Afib, the heart’s two upper chambers (the atria) contract irregularly and quiver rapidly (fibrillate). When the atria don’t contract or squeeze correctly, blood can pool there, instead of moving to the ventricles (lower chambers). When blood pools, it can clot.
If a blood clot (also called an embolus) gets pumped out of the atria, it can travel to other parts of the body. Clots can get stuck and block blood flow to the brain, lungs, intestine, spleen or kidneys. If a blood clot travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke.
A stroke deprives the brain of oxygen and causes brain cells to die. It is a life-threatening emergency that may cause severe disability such as paralysis, blindness and cognitive impairment.
If you or someone around you experiences symptoms of a stroke, seek medical attention immediately. The signs are easily remembered with the American Stroke Association’s abbreviation FAST:
Heart failure occurs when the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
In a person with Afib, the heart beats quickly and irregularly. The atria don’t fill with blood or pump it out properly. That can make the heart work harder, weaken the heart muscle and lead to heart failure.
Some symptoms of heart failure are similar to Afib symptoms: weakness, fatigue and shortness of breath. So a person with Afib might not know they’re developing heart failure. Regular checkups can help detect the problem early.
People with Afib have an increased risk of other serious medical complications as well.
Research suggests that the outlook for people with A-fib has improved over time, but people without A-fib generally have better life expectancies than those with the condition. A person’s outlook and life expectancy depend on individual factors.
A-fib in itself may not be life threatening. Its effect is highly dependent on risk factors and the presence of comorbidities, which include:
It can also lead to serious complications that can be fatal. Mortality rates are four times higher in people with A-fib than in the general population.
Females with A-fib have a poorer outlook than males, with a higher incidence of stroke and death from heart failure and stroke.
The outlook is the same regardless of whether a person experiences symptoms or not. However, a person without symptoms may not receive an early diagnosis of A-fib and therefore experience a delay in treatment.
Older people are at a higher risk of developing A-fib. However, studies show an increasing trend of deaths in young adults. Experts suggest this is due to the growing rate of various conditions among younger people, which include:
Comorbidities, or accompanying conditions, play a role in the progression of A-fib and the development of complications. A 2015 study found that comorbidities such as hypertension and diabetes significantly negatively affect the life expectancy of a person with A-fib.
A-fib occurs in 25% of people with heart failure. People with both conditions have worse symptoms and a poorer outlook.
People with A-fib have a five-fold risk of stroke, which is the most common cause of death in people with A-fib.
A 2017 study found that those with A-fib and diabetes had a higher risk of death and heart failure than people with stroke.
Healthcare professionals may aim to prevent thromboembolism to improve the outlook of people with A-fib. Thromboembolism is when a blood clot forms and blocks a blood vessel.
Learn more about the difference between thrombosis and embolism.