Get The Facts

What is AFib?

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a chronic condition where your heart beats irregularly. When your heart is working normally, it contracts and pumps blood in a regular pattern. This pattern is controlled by electrical signals to your heart. When you have AFib, your heart makes disorganized electric signals. This causes your atria (the upper chambers of your heart) to beat too fast and irregularly—preventing blood from being pumped out to your ventricles (the lower chambers of your heart). When your heart can’t pump out blood effectively, the blood can sometimes pool in your heart and form a blood clot. The clot can travel to your brain and cause a stroke.

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With AFib, time is not on your side

AFib puts you at 5X greater stroke risk. And every hour, 15 people with AFib will suffer a stroke. To help understand the growing need to reduce stroke risk, we’ve put together Facts at a Glance. Take a look, then share it with someone you care about.

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The symptoms of AFib

While some people with AFib have no symptoms, others may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Racing, irregular heart
  • Fluttering in the chest
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Faintness
  • Fatigue when exercising
  • Sweating
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How is AFib diagnosed?

Your doctor may suspect AFib if you have symptoms such as a fluttering or racing heartbeat. Or your doctor may discover that you have AFib during a routine physical or as the result of testing for another condition. Remember, some people who have AFib do not have any symptoms. If your doctor suspects AFib, he or she will want to confirm it through:

  • A physical exam — This may include listening to your heartbeat and breathing, taking your pulse, recording your blood pressure, and checking for other symptoms of heart problems, such as swelling in your legs or feet.
  • A complete medical history — This may include questions about your symptoms, any other health conditions you or your family members may have, and any lifestyle habits that may be contributing to your AFib (such as smoking).
  • Tests such as an electrocardiogram (EKG) — This is a simple, noninvasive test that charts your heart’s rhythm on a paper graph. Depending on the frequency of your AFib episodes, your doctor may ask you to wear a portable EKG monitor at home (called a Holter monitor) in order to record your heart’s rhythm over a longer period of time (usually 24 to 48 hours). Your doctor may also order further testing, such as a blood test, chest X-ray, or echocardiogram (a test that shows your heart in motion) to look for the underlying cause of your AFib as well as any signs of complications.
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How does AFib cause a stroke?

When you have AFib, your heart beats irregularly. This irregular heartbeat can cause blood to linger and pool in the heart. When this happens, clots may form. At any time, a clot can travel out of your heart and to your brain. This can block the flow of blood causing a stroke.

This illustration shows how AFib can cause a blood clot to form in your heart, which can travel to your brain, causing a stroke:

Click to watch this animation A lonely blood clot The human heart The human body
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The consequences of a stroke

For 15 people every hour who suffer a stroke due to AFib, life changes in an instant for them and their loved ones.

When a clot blocks the flow of blood to your brain, this blockage can cause a stroke. Within minutes, brain cells begin to die, which in some cases, can lead to permanent damage including:

  • Paralysis of one side of the body
  • Memory loss
  • Speech and language problems
  • Vision problems

Studies have shown that some of these consequences may be more severe in strokes caused by AFib. In fact, strokes associated with AFib are twice as likely to be fatal or severely disabling. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about the latest treatment options.

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With stroke, minutes count. Know the symptoms

If you or your loved one has AFib, it puts you at 5 times greater risk of having a stroke. That’s why it’s important to quickly recognize the symptoms of stroke that a sufferer may feel or others may observe, and to know what to do if one may be occurring.

Stroke symptoms may include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of your face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of your body
  • Sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Call 9-1-1 immediately if you or your loved one have any of these symptoms.

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Know the signs of stroke

Use this simple F.A.S.T. test as a quick way to determine if your loved one could be having a stroke.

  • FACE: Ask your loved one to smile. Does one side of his or her face droop?
  • ARMS: Ask your loved one to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • SPEECH: Ask your loved one to repeat a simple phrase. Does his or her speech sound slurred or strange?
  • TIME: If you observe any of these signs, it's time to call 9-1-1.
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