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Why is Atrial Fibrillation a Problem?

You may have heard or read that atrial fibrillation is benign. That's not true.

By not getting enough oxygen to the body, afib can lead to heart and valve diseases, sleep apnea, and chronic fatigue. In addition, atrial fibrillation can lead to two potentially life-threatening conditions, congestive heart failure and stroke. It needs to be treated seriously.

Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure results when your heart is overworked. The erratic electrical impulses that cause atrial fibrillation make the heart work too hard, and it becomes enlarged, ineffective, weak, and unable to pump oxygenated blood throughout the body and to the organs. Atrial fibrillation wears your heart out.

Detection of congestive heart failure is difficult. While weakness, fatigue, and shortness of breath may be symptoms of a heart attack, they may also be signs that you have congestive heart failure. By the time you recognize the symptoms, your heart is damaged. If you have any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor.

Congestive heart failure is particularly severe in afib patients with other significant heart problems, such as valve disease. The good news is that congestive heart failure can be repaired through a heart transplant.

Stroke

A stroke, the number three killer, is like a heart attack, but in the brain, which is why they are sometimes called "brain attacks."

A stroke happens as a result of atrial fibrillation because afib causes blood to pool in the atria and form clots, which then break loose, block the arteries, and deprive the brain of oxygen. A stroke can cause blindness, difficulty walking and talking, paralysis, permanent disability, or death, and is very serious in that the damage can't be repaired.

If you have atrial fibrillation, your odds of avoiding stroke aren't that good — atrial fibrillation increases your risk five-fold, and about one-third of atrial fibrillation patients will actually have a stroke. And your risk increases even further if you have other stroke risks, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, or excessive fat intake. If you get enough physical activity, your stroke risk decreases, but atrial fibrillation often leaves you weak and without the stamina for physical activity.

For more information, see Stroke Risks from Afib, Stroke Warning Signs, or Stroke Risk Factors.

Take Control of Your Atrial Fibrillation

Knowing these facts is scary, but it also means that you know how seriously to take the management of your atrial fibrillation. Your doctor needs to know your medical history and your lifestyle to determine how to best manage your atrial fibrillation. By educating yourself and understanding your atrial fibrillation, you can better partner with your doctor in managing it.

Last Modified 12/23/2008

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