Atrial Fibrillation

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

Atrial fibrillation, also known as A-fib or AF, is a type of rapid, irregular heart beat.

Atrial fibrillation occurs when a storm of electrical impulses spreads through the heart in a chaotic and disorganized pattern. This condition begins in the heart’s upper chambers, or atria, causing them to quiver, or contract rapidly.

For some people, atrial fibrillation may only last a short time, but may come back over and over.  For others, it can become permanent. This is known as chronic atrial fibrillation.

If you have atrial fibrillation, ongoing medical care is important. With treatment, people who have atrial fibrillation—even chronic atrial fibrillation—can live normal, active lives.

Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms

Although some people can have atrial fibrillation and feel fine, others may develop various symptoms, including:

  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue and weakness, especially with physical exertion
  • Palpitations, (feeling that your heart is skipping a beat or beating too hard or fast)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the feet

Left untreated, atrial fibrillation can cause blood clots to form, which can lead to a stroke. A-fib can also weaken the lower chambers of the heart, causing heart failure and other conditions. 

Causes and Risks for Atrial Fibrillation 

In a healthy heart, contractions begin in the top chambers of the heart (atria) from the sinus node, also known as the sinoatrial node or SA node. In atrial fibrillation, the contractions begin in another part of the atria or in the nearby pulmonary veins. This causes the electrical signals to travel abnormally. In some cases, more than 300 electrical signals can travel through the atria per minute.

Although the lower chambers, or ventricles, also begin to beat very fast, they can’t beat as fast as the atria. As a result, the heart’s upper and lower chambers no longer beat in an organized way.  When this happens,blood is not pumped into the heart’s lower chambers properly, and the body does not receive the blood and oxygen it needs to function properly.

In some cases, the underlying cause of atrial fibrillation remains unknown. In most cases, however, various risk factors lead to atrial fibrillation, including:

Other health conditions, including obesity, thyroid disease, lung disease, sleep apnea and metabolic syndrome.

Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation

A-fib is diagnosed based on your medical and family histories, a physical exam and results from various tests and procedures.

Your doctor may refer you to a cardiologist, who specializes in diagnosing and treating heart conditions, or to an electrophysiologist, a cardiologist who specializes in treating atrial fib or irregular heart beats.

Testing may include:

  • Electrocardiographic (ekg) testing, sometimes with a Holter monitor or an event monitor
  • Ultrasound testing of your heart including TTE (trans-thoracic echo) or TEE (trans-esophageal echo, 12-lead echocardiography
  • Chest X-ray
  • Lab testing to check your electrolyte levels or thyroid hormone levels

Treating Atrial Fibrillation

Treating A-fib depends how often you have symptoms, their severity and whether you already have heart disease. People who have AF but don’t have symptoms may STILL need treatment with medications to control the heart rate, as well as a blood thinner.  They should also have their condition monitored by their doctor.

When A-fib is caused by an underlying risk factor, doctors may prescribe lifestyle changes or medications to address these risks. Lifestyle changes may include quitting smoking, losing weight or reducing salt or caffeine intake.They also may prescribe medications to treat high cholesterol, high blood pressure or thyroid disease.

If the atrial fibrillation is persistent or permanent, doctors often prescribe medications and/or perform various procedures and surgeries to control the heart rate and prevent complications. 

Medications may include:

  • Blood thinners to prevent clots from forming
  • Beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers and digitalis to help control the heart rate 

Procedures and surgeries may include:

  • Cardioversion
  • Catheter ablation
  • Pacemaker
  • Minimally invasive surgery or open-heart surgery, including maze surgery or other combinations of surgery with ablation, which disrupts the path of abnormal electrical impulses
  • Some of these treatments can be done alone, or in combination with each other

A Leader in Atrial Fibrillation Management

Aurora Health Care is a nationally recognized leader in diagnosing, managing and treating atrial fibrillation. Our physicians and nurses in The Atrial Fibrillation Ablation Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin provide state-of-the art, comprehensive care for patients suffering from all types of heart rhythm disorders. We also partner with other health care professionals including cardiologists and heart surgeons to help manage and treat patients with arrhythmia.

Starting in 1977, Aurora Health Care’s Cardiac Electrophysiology Department was one of the first programs in the nation to diagnose and treat patients with heart rhythm disorders. We use the most advanced technologies available, some of which we developed. Our program is one of the busiest in the country.

Aurora doctors are conveniently located throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. Find a doctor or heart specialist near you. To get a second opinion or if you need assistance finding a provider, please call 888-649-6892.