Skip to main content

Atrial fibrillation: Taking stroke risk to heart

Having atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm, puts you at risk for stroke. But treatment can lower that risk.

A stroke is sometimes called a brain attack. But for some people, the origins of stroke can actually be traced to another of the body's major organs—the heart.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), 15 to 20 percent of strokes are linked to atrial fibrillation (AF), a heart rhythm disorder that affects about 2.7 million Americans.

In AF the electrical signals that coordinate the muscles of the heart's two upper chambers, the atria, become rapid and disorganized. As a result, the atria quiver instead of beating as they should. This causes blood to pool, enabling clots to form. If part of a clot leaves the heart, it may block the flow of blood to the brain and cause a stroke.

Who's affected?

Other heart problems or high blood pressure increases a person's risk for the condition. Lung problems, thyroid disorders, heavy alcohol consumption, smoking and use of stimulant drugs, including caffeine, can increase risk as well. In many cases, however, the cause of AF remains unknown.

Symptoms

It's possible to have AF without realizing it. But some people might notice their heart racing or flopping in their chest.

Other possible signs may include:

  • Dizziness.
  • Chest pain or pressure.
  • Sweating.
  • Difficulty catching your breath.
  • Weakness.
  • Inability to exercise.

If you have these symptoms, it's important to bring them to your doctor's attention promptly.

Treatment

If your doctor confirms that you have AF, the AHA recommends treating it aggressively. Medication to help prevent blood clots may be prescribed. Other possible treatments include:

  • Medication to slow your heart rate or help restore a normal heart rhythm.
  • A pacemaker to regulate heart rhythm.
  • Electrical cardioversion, a procedure in which an electric shock is used to restore the heart's rhythm.
  • Surgery to disrupt the electrical signals that lead to AF.
  • Radiofrequency ablation, a procedure done to destroy tissue that triggers abnormal electrical signals or to block abnormal electrical pathways.

Treatment may lower your stroke risk significantly, the AHA reports.

reviewed 5/23/2019

Related stories