Description: In normal heart rhythm (called sinus rhythm), a pacemaker called the sinus node fires off about once a second initiating a heart beat. There are other tissues in the atria which can act as pacemakers if the sinus node fails, and also the atrial tissues can conduct electricity. In atrial fibrillation pacemakers are firing off all over the atria creating chaotic electric circuits. This means the heart beats irregularly, usually too fast, the atrial do not contract normally but just fibrillate. This means they do not empty all the blood out of the atria and its appendages, clots can form and these can break off and go anywhere in the circulation causing a blocked artery anywhere in the body - leading to a stroke, heart attack, gangrene in leg etc.
Atrial fibrillation can be intermittent or continuous. The patient usually feels a change in heart rhythm, may feel faint as the rhythm changes and short of breath.
The cause of fibrillation is usually enlargement and stretching of the atria (the top chambers of the heart). This can happen with heart valve disease, high blood pressure or heart failure, however often no obvious cause can be found. Sometimes conditions like hyperthyroidism (excess thyroid hormone), diabetes, obesity, smoking, some drugs (asthma drugs, NSAIDs, steroids and drinking excess alcohol. Occasionally excess physical activity can precipitate an attack.
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