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Atrial Fibrillation by Cheryl Glaeser

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Atrial Fibrillation is the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia.  An arrhythmia is a variation from the normal rhythm of the heartbeat.  The heartbeat in an arrhythmia can be too fast, too slow, or may have an irregular rhythm.  Many of the arrhythmias are harmless, but some can be serious and even life-threatening.  Our hearts have an electrical system that controls the rate and rhythm of the heartbeat.  When a heart beats, it sends an electrical signal from the top of the heart to the bottom.   As this signal travels, it causes the heart to contract and pump blood throughout the circulatory system.  The electrical signal starts in the sinoatrial (SA) node, which is located in the right atrium.  In a healthy adult heart, the SA node sends an electrical signal to begin a new heartbeat 60 to 100 times per minute.  The electrical impulse then travels from the right atrium to the left atrium, which causes the atria to contract and pump blood into the ventricles of the heart.  Next, the impulse moves down to a group of cells called the atrioventricular node (AV).  The AV node is the anatomical location where the electrical signal slows down so the ventricles can fill with blood.  The signal then leaves the AV node and heads to the ventricles, which causes them to contract and pump blood to the lungs and other parts of the body.

Unlike the rhythm of the normal healthy heart, atrial fibrillation is a condition where the electrical signals of the heart are usually rapid and disorganized.  This action causes the two upper chambers of the heart, the atria, to contract quickly and irregularly.  Atrial fibrillation causes blood to pool in the atria and not empty into the ventricles. This causes the heart’s upper chambers, the atria, and lower chambers, and the ventricles to be confused.  This disorganized rhythm can lead to a blood clot due to abnormal pooling of blood in the atria.  If a clot is pumped from the heart, it can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. This occlusion of an artery causes hypoxia and death of brain cells.  People with atrial fibrillation are 5-7 times more likely to have a stroke.  Clots can also travel to other areas of the body, such as the kidneys and lungs causing damage to the target organ.  Some of the symptoms of atrial fibrillation include lethargy, dizziness, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations.  There is no single factor that causes this disease, but several conditions are associated with it.  Hypertension, heart valve disease, pulmonary embolism, and heart failure are often underlying conditions related to atrial fibrillation.

Since atrial fibrillation has potentially severe consequences if left untreated, its recognition and treatment are of utmost importance.  Several types of treatment may be used.  Many patients are prescribed rhythm control medications or antiarrhythmic drugs.  This class of drugs helps the heart return to its normal sinus rhythm and control its abnormal rate.  Patients with atrial fibrillation usually need to be on an anticoagulant medication to prevent potentially deadly or debilitating clot formation.  Pacemaker implantation is a surgical treatment for patients with atrial fibrillation who have an abnormally slow heart rate.  Electrical Cardioversion is another procedure that doctors perform to reset a rapid heart rate, making medications more effective.

In conclusion, atrial fibrillation is a common arrhythmia that has potentially fatal consequences.  Therefore, its recognition by the patient and medical professionals is very important in restoring the normal healthy rate and rhythm of the heart.

Works Cited

“Diseases & Conditions.” HealthHub. Cleveland Clinic, 18 Mar. 2009. Web. 26 Aug. 2012. <http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/atrial_fibrillation/afib.aspx>.

“NIH Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.” NIH Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. N.p., 1 July 2011. Web. 26 Aug. 2012. <http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/>.



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