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What you should know about atrial fibrillation


Atrial fibrillation, or “a-fib,” is a common heart condition that people may not recognize. Until it stops them in their tracks.

At least 2.7 million Americans have atrial fibrillation — the most common kind of irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. It’s caused when the heart’s upper chambers beat erratically or quiver and don’t sync with the heart’s lower chambers. Learn more about how a-fib occurs.

Some people may only experience atrial fibrillation every now and then. For others, with persistent a-fib, their heart rhythm won’t return to normal on its own. Undiagnosed or untreated a-fib can be dangerous, causing heart failure or stroke. In fact, a-fib is thought to contribute to up to a third of all strokes.

The good news is that once it’s diagnosed, a-fib often can be treated with medication or minimally invasive procedures like cardioversion or ablation (see more below).  

What causes atrial fibrillation

Electrical impulses in the heart regulate its beating. A-fib occurs when these impulses become erratic. Some of the risk factors for this include:

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)

  • age

  • viral infections

  • stimulant use including caffeine, tobacco and certain medications

  • diabetes

  • sleep apnea

  • chronic lung diseases

  • stress

  • coronary artery or heart valve disease

  • Sometimes, however, atrial fibrillation occurs without the patient having any obvious trigger.

Know the symptoms

A-fib symptoms can range from mild to severe. However, some patients do not experience any symptoms and are diagnosed only through specialized testing.

Symptoms can include:

  • anxiety

  • chest pain

  • fatigue

  • difficulty exercising

  • feeling as if your heart is racing, pounding, fluttering or beating irregularly

  • lightheadedness or dizziness

  • shortness of breath

When you need to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience a-fib symptoms. If your symptoms are caused by an irregular heartbeat, your doctor may refer you to an electrophysiologist — a cardiologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating heart arrhythmias.

BJC HealthCare and Washington University Physicians have electrophysiologists who are skilled at treating atrial fibrillation. Meet our team of electrophysiologists.


There are several ways to treat atrial fibrillation. Treatment for a-fib, whether medication or a procedure, is often very successful in controlling the condition and improving the quality of life for a-fib patients.

  • Medication — Your doctor may prescribe medicine to slow and regulate your heartbeat as the first line of treatment.

  • Cardioversion — If medications don’t work, you may have a cardioversion, where mild electric impulses shock your heart back into a normal rhythm. This is often an outpatient procedure.

  • Ablation — Patients whose a-fib isn’t controlled by medication or cardioversion may need to have an ablation, a minimally invasive procedure where doctors first map your heart to pinpoint the exact area causing the arrhythmia, then create tiny scars that block the abnormal electrical signals.

Taking even a small step can start you on the journey to a healthier heart. Learn more about managing your heart health by visiting bjc.org/heart. Call 866-604-3365 to schedule an appointment with BJC’s team of cardiologists.

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