By Angela Hartley on 18 October 2021
What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a heart condition that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate.
You can measure your heart rate by feeling your pulse in your wrist or neck for 60 seconds. A normal heart rate should be regular and between 60 and 100 beats a minute when you're resting. In AF, your pulse will feel irregular, and may be fast or slow.
What does AF feel like?
Everyone has different symptoms of AF. Some people have no symptoms at all and often carry on their normal lives unaware that they have AF.
Some people have one or two of the following symptoms, others have multiple. Here are some of the most common symptoms that can occur include:
What causes AF?
The cause of AF not fully understood, but it tends to affect certain groups of people, such as older people and people living with long-term (chronic) conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure or obesity.
Sometimes though it comes out of the blue with no good reason at all!
How and Why Do People Get A Fib?
The Heart Rhythm Society have put together some of the most common reasons that people get AF:
Heart-related problems such as:
Other problems can contribute to developing AF such as:
Some people are more likely to get AFib than others. You have a higher chance of getting AFib if:
Even people with healthy lifestyles who have no other medical problems can get AFib.
In my private cardiac rehab clinic, there are several people who train with me who have AF, but the most common people I see are:
What is happening when the heart is in AF?
In a normal heat beat, the muscular walls of the heart tighten and squeeze (contract) to force blood out and around the body. They then relax so the heart can fill with blood again. This process is repeated every time the heart beats.
In AF however, the heart's upper chambers (atria) contract randomly and sometimes so fast that the heart muscle cannot relax properly between contractions. This reduces the heart's efficiency and performance.
AF happens when abnormal electrical impulses suddenly start firing in the atria (top left and right chambers of the heart). These extra impulses override the heart's natural pacemaker call the SA node, which can then no longer control the rhythm of the heart. This causes you to have a highly irregular pulse rate.
Is AF dangerous?
The main risk of having AF is that it increases your risk of having a stroke. The reason for this is that when the heart rhythm is in AF, blood then pools in the top chamber of the heart (atria) as the top of the heart beats so fast. This pooled blood over time can then form a blood clot. A blood clot can then travel and lodge in the brain and cause a stroke. So the main risk is having a stroke and the problems that come with that.
As well as the risk of stroke, AF increases your risk of causing heart failure over the long term. The longer that your heart is in AF, the greater this risk is. This is because having a high pulse rate and especially if combined with high blood pressure, can cause the ventricles of the heart to enlarge and stretch. If the heart has to deal with this for a long period then heart failure can occur. AF that’s well controlled with medication lowers the risk of this happening.
What treatments are there for AF?
The different types of treatment for AF is usually decided after a discussion with your cardiologist to determine your risk factors, your symptoms and how AF is affecting your quality of life.
Whilst AF is not usually life threatening, it can be uncomfortable and often requires treatment.
Treatment may involve:
Exercising with AF:
Many of my clients come to me because they are unsure and worried about exercising with Af. Whilst every client session and program is different and tailored to their fitness levels, goals and medical history, here are some of the broad exercise recommendations I give people who have AF:
Exercise with me
Dr Warrick Bishop is a Cardiologist who has written several fantastic heart books, one of which is all about AF. Atrial Fibrillation Explained gives a great overview of AF and its treatment. Knowledge is power and knowledge can be the antidote to fear of the unknown. In plain language, Dr. Bishop explains how the heart works, what happens when AF occurs, and how it can lead to clot formation and stroke if left undetected and untreated. He then moves on to the various treatment options, illustrated with case histories. This book is a must-read for those with AF, and those who care about those with AF.
I'm Angela Hartley, Cardiac Nurse and Exercise Coach and I'm here to help you get fitter, stronger and get your mojo back.
No matter how unfit you are or what heart condition you have, we can help! As part of the programmes on offer you will feel part of a community, be able to use a range of tools to keep you motivated and have access to a members area on the website where you can interact with others, learn more about your heart condition and track your progress.