Atrial fibrillation (AFib) causes an irregular, oftentimes fast, heart rate. The effects of AFib can include tiredness, dizziness, and fluttering in the chest.

However, AFib does not always cause noticeable symptoms. Over time, AFib can also lead to complications.

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AFib may not have any noticeable symptoms. Some people report feeling a quivering feeling in their chest. Others experience a wide range of symptoms.

Symptoms of a fast heart rate can include:

  • tiredness
  • dizziness
  • shortness of breath

Symptoms of an irregular heart rate can include palpitations that last from a few seconds to a few minutes. These can feel like a fluttering or pounding sensation in the chest.

The cause of AFib is sometimes unknown. Damage to the heart is the most common cause. This damage can be related to other heart conditions, including:

  • Hypertension: This is also known as high blood pressure.
  • Heart valve disease: This is when one or more of the heart valves do not work as they should.
  • Congenital heart disease: This type of heart disease develops before birth.
  • Pericarditis: This causes inflammation of the lining of the heart.
  • Cardiomyopathy: This is a disease of the heart muscle.
  • Coronary heart disease: This causes a narrowing of the coronary arteries due to a buildup of fatty deposits.
  • Lifestyle factors: These can include untreated sleep apnea and alcohol use.

It could also relate to other factors, including:

  • advanced age
  • physical and mental stress
  • high blood pressure
  • hyperthyroidism
  • chronic kidney disease
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • diabetes

Learn the triggers of an AFib attack.

Blood can pool in the heart with AFib because the atria are fibrillating/quivering and not producing a strong, robust squeeze. The blood pools, typically in the left atrial appendage region, which can cause it to coagulate and form a clot. If this clot ejects from the heart during a contraction, it will typically travel to the brain. This is called an embolic stroke.

Another complication of AFib is heart failure. This is usually due to a fast heart rate. Afib can send many electrical signals to the bottom heart chambers (known as the ventricles) and can trigger RVR (rapid ventricular response), which can cause rapid heart rates.

If a heart beats very rapidly for several hours, this affects the ability of the heart to squeeze effectively to move blood forward. In turn, this can cause the muscle to remodel, which can dilate or weaken the heart muscle and lead to heart failure.

This can also lead to blood pooling in the area, increasing the risk of complications such as cognitive impairment, blood clots, and stroke, as the pooled blood can clot. These clots can move around the body, preventing blood from reaching the brain.

Learn how to prevent an AFib attack.

There are a variety of treatments for AFib. This can include catheter ablation, cardioversion, or fitting a pacemaker. Doctors may prescribe medications with the goal of restoring the heart rhythm, controlling heart rate, and preventing blood clotting.

The medications used can have unwanted side effects, as is common with all medications. Doctors will consider the risk of side effects alongside the risk of the condition not being treated. A person can discuss any concerns about medication side effects with their doctor.

There are different risks associated with the various medications. The table below details the most common side effects of medications that doctors frequently prescribe to treat AFib:

Drug typeRolePossible side effects
Beta-blockersslow the heart rate, often by blocking the action of hormones• cold hands and feet
• tiredness
• low blood pressure
• nightmares
• impotence
Flecainideworks on electrical channels to maintain a typical rhythm• being or feeling sick
• heart rhythm disorders
Verapamilslows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure with the action of hormones• constipation
• low blood pressure
• ankle swelling
• heart failure
Warfarinreduces blood clotting• increased risk of bleeding
• possible interactions with other medications

Other anticoagulation medications that are common in clinical practice include apixaban (Eliquis) and rivaroxaban (Xarelto).

Learn more about medications for AFib.

If left untreated, AFib can have serious consequences, including heart failure due to the weakening of the heart and strokes caused by pooled blood clotting and moving around the body, which prevent blood from reaching the brain.

Urgent care is needed if there is sudden chest pain that lasts for more than 15 minutes and is accompanied by any of the following:

  • tightness in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • pain in the jaw, arms, neck, or back
  • sweating
  • vomiting

It is best to seek medical advice if a person experiences any of the following:

  • chest pain that comes and goes
  • a sudden change in heart rate or rhythm
  • a heart rate lower than 60 beats per minute (bpm) or above 100 bpm for a prolonged period
  • the onset of symptoms relating to AFib, including:
    • heart fluttering or pounding
    • shortness of breath
    • dizziness

Learn how doctors diagnose AFib.

AFib is a heart condition that causes an irregular and often unusually fast or slow heart rate. There may not be any noticeable symptoms, but common symptoms include:

  • tiredness
  • dizziness
  • shortness of breath
  • a fluttering feeling in the chest
  • a pounding feeling in the chest

AFib can be dangerous if not treated and lead to stroke or heart failure. Treatment can help avoid these conditions.