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Sometimes, it feels like your heart is racing, beating irregularly or even flopping in your chest. Occasionally, you get lightheaded or short of breath. Your chest may even hurt a little, but it goes away after a while. Should you be worried? If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor to see if you may suffer from atrial fibrillation or another heart arrhythmia.
About 2.2 million Americans live with atrial fibrillation, the most common form of cardiac arrhythmia. Basically, a heart in atrial fibrillation doesn't beat efficiently. The two small upper chambers (the atria) quiver instead of beating effectively. As a result, your heart may not be able to pump enough blood out to your body with each heartbeat. The likelihood of developing atrial fibrillation increases with age and three to five percent of people over 65 have it. Conditions that may increase your risk include high blood pressure, congenital heart defects, overactive thyroid, metabolic imbalance, lung disease, previous heart surgery or heart attack, sleep apnea and certain viral infections. Also, the use of caffeine, tobacco, alcohol or stimulant medication, as well as family history may contribute.
Many people with atrial fibrillation have no symptoms and are unaware of their condition until it's discovered during a physical examination. It is not generally life-threatening, but it can cause palpitations, fainting, chest pain or congestive heart failure. People with atrial fibrillation have up to seven times the risk of stroke as that of the general population, according to the American Heart Association, and the condition accounts for one-third of hospital admissions for cardiac conditions.
Medications can help set a heart in atrial fibrillation rate back to near-normal (60-100 beats per minute) and restore a more regular rhythm. Your doctor also may prescribe blood thinners to prevent clots and reduce the risk of stroke. In more serious or medication-resistant cases, your doctor may recommend one of several procedures or even surgery to restore a regular heartbeat and rate. Your doctor will be able to recommend the most appropriate treatment for you based on your risk factors, how long you've had atrial fibrillation, how bothersome your symptoms are and the underlying cause of the condition.
If you have atrial fibrillation or are at risk for it, you may need to make lifestyle changes that improve the overall health of your heart, especially to prevent or treat conditions such as high blood pressure. Your doctor may suggest that you eat heart-healthy foods, reduce your salt intake, which can help lower blood pressure, increase your physical activity, quit smoking and avoid drinking more than one drink of alcohol a day for women or two drinks for men. You also may need to be careful about taking over-the-counter medications, such as cold medicines that contain stimulants or that may interfere with the effectiveness of medications you are taking for your arrhythmia.