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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (AF) usually causes the heart's lower chambers, the ventricles, to contract faster than normal.

When this happens, the ventricles can't completely fill with blood. Thus, they may not be able to pump enough blood to the lungs and body. This can lead to signs and symptoms, such as:

  • Palpitations (feelings that your heart is skipping a beat, fluttering, or beating too hard or fast)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or problems exercising
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Confusion

Atrial Fibrillation Complications

AF has two major complications—stroke and heart failure.

Stroke

During AF, the heart's upper chambers, the atria, don't pump all of their blood to the ventricles. Some blood pools in the atria. When this happens, a blood clot (also called a thrombus) can form.

If the clot breaks off and travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke. (A clot that forms in one part of the body and travels in the bloodstream to another part of the body is called an embolus.)

Blood-thinning medicines that reduce the risk of stroke are an important part of treatment for people who have AF.

Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke

The illustration shows how a stroke can occur during atrial fibrillation. If a clot (thrombus) forms in the left atrium of the heart, a piece of it can dislodge and travel to an artery in the brain, blocking blood flow through the artery. The lack of blood flow to the portion of the brain fed by the artery causes a stroke.

The illustration shows how a stroke can occur during atrial fibrillation. A blood clot (thrombus) can form in the left atrium of the heart. If a piece of the clot breaks off and travels to an artery in the brain, it can block blood flow through the artery. The lack of blood flow to the portion of the brain fed by the artery causes a stroke.

Heart Failure

Heart failure occurs if the heart can't pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. AF can lead to heart failure because the ventricles are beating very fast and can't completely fill with blood. Thus, they may not be able to pump enough blood to the lungs and body.

Fatigue and shortness of breath are common symptoms of heart failure. A buildup of fluid in the lungs causes these symptoms. Fluid also can build up in the feet, ankles, and legs, causing weight gain.

Lifestyle changes, medicines, and procedures or surgery (rarely, a mechanical heart pump or heart transplant) are the main treatments for heart failure.

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Atrial Fibrillation Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. To find clinical trials that are currently underway for Atrial Fibrillation, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov.


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July 01, 2011 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.