Quiz: Could You Have AFib and Not Know It?
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While it quietly works away, beating 100,000 times per day, sometimes those beats can become irregular, which is known as arrhythmia. Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is one type of arrhythmia. The name refers to the quivering (fibrillation) that occurs in the upper heart chambers, otherwise known as the atria.
"AFib in and of itself is not dangerous; it's what AFib can lead to that can be dangerous," says Vincent Thomas, M.D., a cardiac electrophysiologist and Medical Safety Officer for Biosense Webster, a Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices company.
For starters, AFib can cause an incredibly fast heart rate in the top chambers of the heart; during an acute episode, the heart rate is irregular, with a rate ranging from 120 to 200 beats per minute—a normal rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute.
"When the atria are beating so quickly, it can lead to blood clots forming in the heart," Dr. Thomas explains. "Those clots can then be ejected, travel to the brain and potentially cause a stroke."
AFib also taxes the heart muscle and can weaken it. That, in turn, can make everyday tasks, like walking the dog or climbing a flight of stairs, more challenging and uncomfortable.
The good news is that AFib is treatable, if you get the proper diagnosis and stay in regular contact with your doctor—the latter of which is especially important now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led many people to postpone medical care, which can delay a potential diagnosis of AFib. People with underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease, can also be at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.