How Serious Is Atrial Fibrillation?

Last Editorial Review: 8/14/2017

Ask the experts

How serious was Vice President Dick Cheney's latest heart problem, atrial fibrillation?

Doctor's response

Vice President Cheney has been in the news because of the development of an irregular heart rate known as atrial fibrillation (also known as Afib). He has previously had heart problems with a weakened heart muscle due to prior heart attacks, prior coronary surgery (including angioplasty, coronary artery bypass surgery, and coronary artery stenting), and an implantation of a pacemaker/defibrillator. The development of atrial fibrillation in this setting is not uncommon, however, it is common for an individual to develop atrial fibrillation without the above conditions.

Atrial fibrillation is a condition where the upper heart chambers (atria) do not contract normally. Instead, they contract rapidly in a disorganized fashion, leading to an irregular and rapid heart rhythm. This rhythm is associated with an increased risk of blood clots forming in the upper heart chambers, which could result in stroke. This can be prevented with the use of the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin), and if the levels of this drug are appropriate, the risk of stroke is minimal. In many instances, specific medicines and/or electrical procedures (for example, electrical cardioversion, which is the treatment Mr. Cheney received) may be used to treat atrial fibrillation. With good medical care, Mr. Cheney should be in no significant danger, and should easily be able to carry out the duties of his office.

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Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care


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