Atrial Fibrillation (cont.)

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What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

Many patients with atrial fibrillation have no symptoms and are unaware of the abnormal heart rhythm. The most common symptom of atrial fibrillation is palpitations, an uncomfortable awareness of the rapid and irregular heartbeat. Other symptoms of atrial fibrillation are caused by the diminished delivery of blood to the body. These symptoms include:

  • dizziness,
  • fainting,
  • weakness,
  • fatigue,
  • shortness of breath, and
  • angina (chest pain due to reduced blood flow to the heart muscles).

What are the complications of atrial fibrillation?

Heart failure

If the heart is unable to pump an adequate amount of blood to the body, as in some people with atrial fibrillation, the body begins to compensate by retaining fluid. This can lead to a condition called heart failure. Heart failure results in the accumulation of fluid in the lower legs (edema) and the lungs (pulmonary edema). Pulmonary edema makes breathing more difficult and reduces the ability of the lung to add oxygen to and remove carbon dioxide from the blood. The levels of oxygen in the blood can drop, and the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood can increase, a complication called respiratory failure. This is a life-threatening complication. In patients with underlying heart disease, the development of atrial fibrillation may result in up to a 25% decrease in the pumping function of the heart.

Stroke

Quivering of the atria in atrial fibrillation causes blood inside the atria to stagnate. Stagnant blood tends to form blood clots along the walls of the atria. Sometimes, these blood clots dislodge, pass through the ventricles, and lodge in the brain, lungs, and other parts of the body. This process is called embolization. One common complication of atrial fibrillation is a blood clot that travels to the brain and causes the sudden onset of one-sided paralysis of the extremities and/or the facial muscles (an embolic stroke). A blood clot that travels to the lungs can cause injury to the lung tissues (pulmonary infarction), and symptoms of chest pain and shortness of breath. When blood clots travel to the body's extremities, cold hands, feet, or legs may occur suddenly because of the lack of blood.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/30/2013

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