What is it?
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common sustained cardiac arrhythmia and it occurs when the electrical impulses of the top two chambers of the heart (the atria) become distorted. This causes these chambers to quiver (or fibrillate) instead of beating regularly. When the atria fail to beat regularly, it allows for the blood to pool and potentially form a clot. If this clot then travels to the brain this can cause a stroke which can have devastating effects. Your GP or cardiologist will most likely discuss medications with you to lower the risk of this happening if you are found to have AF.
In a normal heart, the electrical impulses begin in the atria and travel down to the bottom two chambers (the ventricles), causing the heart to beat in a one-two motion (atria – ventricles – atria – ventricles). When you feel your pulse, you are actually feeling your ventricles beating, not your atria, as the ventricles are bigger and stronger chambers which force the blood from your heart to the rest of your body. When the atria are in AF, the electrical signals that travel to the ventricles are distorted and cause them to beat irregularly, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, therefore when you feel the pulse of someone with AF, it will not beat regularly.
Symptoms of AF vary however, in addition to an irregular pulse, the most common symptoms people experience are tiredness, lethargy and breathlessness. It is important to note that some people experience no symptoms at all.
How to manage AF
There are many causes of AF; high blood pressure, heart disease, hypothyroidism to name just a few. Sometime a person is diagnosed with AF and there is no obvious cause found at all. People who have AF often find that there are five common lifestyle factors that can set off an episode and managing these, in addition to following the directions and/or medications given to you by your cardiologist, can assist with lowering the incidence of AF episodes.
- Weight – keeping within a healthy weight range (BMI <24.9)
- Stress – often the hardest factor to manage as stress can often be out of your control however find a method to manage your stress levels (practicing mindfulness, breathing exercises, going for a walk etc) and avoid situations that cause you unnecessary stress as best you can.
- Alcohol – cutting alcohol out of your life entirely is best when trying to manage AF. People over the age of 55 are particularly susceptible to the effects of alcohol and its role as a trigger for AF.
- Caffeine – It is also recommended to cut out caffeine from your lifestyle. Remember that chocolate and energy drinks also contain caffeine and count toward your limit.
- Exercise – Regular physical activity is often associated with improved cardiovascular health and reduced risk of atrial fibrillation. Exercise has also been shown to reduce the incidence of episodes however higher intensity or excessive exercise can lead to higher rates of AF.
When beginning an exercise program for atrial fibrillation please consult with your exercise physiologist for a appropriate exercise program.