Frequently Asked Questions

Atrial Fibrillation

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What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat. It reduces your heart's ability to pump blood through your body, which means you do not get enough oxygen. Atrial fibrillation may come and go, or it may be a long-term condition. It is important to treat and manage atrial fibrillation to help prevent a blood clot or stroke.

What increases my risk for atrial fibrillation?

  • High blood pressure

  • Age 65 years or older

  • Heart failure, heart surgery, or other heart conditions

  • COPD, sleep apnea, blood clots in your lung, or other lung diseases

  • Diabetes, obesity, or thyroid disease

  • Heavy alcohol use

What are the signs and symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

  • Pounding, racing, or fluttering heartbeat

  • Weakness or tiredness

  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain or pressure

How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask when your symptoms began and if you noticed anything that triggered them. He will measure your heart rate. Tell him what health conditions you have and what medicines you take. He will ask if you drink alcohol, smoke, or use any illegal drugs. You may need any of the following tests:

  • An EKG records your heart rhythm and how fast your heart beats. You may also need to wear a Holter monitor while you do your usual activities. The Holter monitor is a portable EKG machine.

  • Blood and urine tests check for infection, potassium and calcium levels, and thyroid function.

  • A chest x-ray shows the structure of your heart and lungs. It may show if another condition is causing your symptoms.

  • An echocardiogram is a type of ultrasound. Sound waves are used to show the structure and function of your heart.

How is atrial fibrillation treated?

  • Heart medicines help control your heart rate and rhythm. You may need more than one medicine to treat your symptoms.

  • Cardioversion is a procedure to return your heart rate and rhythm to normal. It can be done using medicines or electric shock.

  • Anticoagulants are a type of blood thinner medicine that helps prevent clots. Clots can cause strokes, heart attacks, and death. These medicines may cause you to bleed or bruise more easily.

    • Watch for bleeding from your gums or nose. Watch for blood in your urine and bowel movements. Use a soft washcloth and a soft toothbrush. If you shave, use an electric razor. Avoid activities that can cause bruising or bleeding.

    • Tell your healthcare provider about all medicines you take because many medicines cannot be used with anticoagulants. Do not start or stop any medicines unless your healthcare provider tells you to. Tell your dentist and other healthcare providers that you take anticoagulants. Wear a bracelet or necklace that says you take this medicine.

    • You will need regular blood tests so your healthcare provider can decide how much medicine you need. Take anticoagulants exactly as directed. Tell your healthcare provider right away if you forget to take the medicine, or if you take too much.

    • If you take warfarin, some foods can change how your blood clots. Do not make major changes to your diet while you take warfarin. Warfarin works best when you eat about the same amount of vitamin K every day. Vitamin K is found in green leafy vegetables, broccoli, grapes, and other foods. Ask for more information about what to eat when you take warfarin.

  • Antiplatelets , such as aspirin, help prevent blood clots. Take your antiplatelet medicine exactly as directed. These medicines make it more likely for you to bleed or bruise. If you are told to take aspirin, do not take acetaminophen or ibuprofen instead.

How can I manage atrial fibrillation?

  • Know your target heart rate. Learn how to take your pulse and monitor your heart rate.

  • Control your blood pressure. Take blood pressure medicine as directed. Get 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. Ask your healthcare provider about the best exercise plan for you.

  • Limit alcohol. Women should limit alcohol to 1 drink a day. Men should limit alcohol to 2 drinks a day. A drink of alcohol is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.

  • Do not smoke. If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. Smoking increases your risk for heart problems and blood clots. Ask your healthcare provider for more information if you need help quitting.

  • Eat heart-healthy foods. These include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Replace butter and margarine with heart-healthy oils such as olive oil and canola oil.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Ask your healthcare provider how much you should weigh. Ask him to help you create a weight loss plan if you are overweight.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your target heart rate is not in the range it should be.

  • You have new or worsening swelling in your legs, feet, ankles, or abdomen.

  • You are short of breath, even at rest.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have any of the following signs of a stroke:

    • Numbness or drooping on one side of your face

    • Weakness in an arm or leg

    • Confusion or difficulty speaking

    • Dizziness, a severe headache, or vision loss

  • You have signs of a blood clot:

    • You feel lightheaded, are short of breath, and have chest pain.

    • You cough up blood.

    • You have swelling, redness, pain, or warmth in your arm or leg.

  • You have any of the following signs of a heart attack:

    • Squeezing, pressure, or pain in your chest that lasts longer than 5 minutes or returns

    • Discomfort or pain in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm

    • Trouble breathing

    • Nausea or vomiting

    • Lightheadedness or a sudden cold sweat, especially with chest pain or trouble breathing

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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