Atrial fibrillation (AF) is an abnormal heart rhythm. 

The heartbeat is irregular and often fast. It is the most common heart rhythm disorder in the UK affecting one per cent (one in 100) of the population under 65 years old and ten per cent (one in ten) of patients aged over 75 years. 

Patients with AF may have no complaints or symptoms, such as palpitations, shortness of breath, lack of energy, light-headedness and chest discomfort. 

Some patients with AF may even develop evidence of heart failure or suffer a stroke.

About atrial fibrillation

AF is the most common cardiac arrhythmia and is characterised by an irregular, often very fast, heart rate. 

What is normal (sinus) rhythm?

The heart is divided into four chambers: two at the top, called the atria, and two at the bottom, called the ventricles. The heart normally beats regularly and in a coordinated manner (first, the atria followed by the ventricles with every heartbeat). At rest, the heart rate is usually between 60 and 100 bpm (beats per minute). This is called normal sinus rhythm. 

The heartbeat needs an electrical conduction system, rather like electrical wiring. This is made up of cells in the heart that send electrical messages or impulses to the heart muscle. These electrical impulses stimulate the heart to contract. 

In a normal heart, the electrical impulse starts from our natural pacemaker, the sinoatrial node (SA node), which is located at the top of the right atrium. This electrical impulse then spreads very quickly throughout the right and left atria, making them contract. It then goes through a gateway from the atria to the ventricles called the atrioventricular node (AV node). Once it is past the AV node, the electrical impulse speeds its way into the ventricles making them contract and push the blood out of the heart.

The AV node is situated at the lower right atrium, and acts as an electrical junction between the atria and ventricles. During normal sinus rhythm, the AV node's main function is to delay the speed at which the electrical impulse travels between the atria and the ventricles. This means the heart pumps blood more efficiently.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is an abnormal heart rhythm, where the heart beats irregularly and often fast. It is the most common heart rhythm disorder in the UK.

AF can occur at any age but is most common in people aged over 65 years old. In the over 80s, it can affect 7-10 per cent of people. The top chambers of the heart (atria) have abnormal, disorganised electrical activity. This overrides the sinus node, causing the atria to beat rapidly (more than 300 times a minute) and irregularly (known as fibrillating or fibrillation). At this rate, the atria can not pump blood efficiently. 

The AV node has a very important protective mechanism; it is able to stop many of these electrical impulses being transmitted from the atria to the ventricles, preventing the ventricles from beating at the same rate as the atria. The rate of the ventricles in AF depends on the AV node and can range from slow to very fast. 

The protective function of the AV node means AF is a non-life threatening arrhythmia. However, it can still cause the heart function to become impaired and, regardless of how slow or fast the heart is beating, can increase the risk of stroke.

What are the causes of AF?

The cause of AF is still not fully understood. AF is more likely to occur with increasing age and there are several ill-health factors that can contribute to AF developing:

  • ischaemic heart disease
  • mitral valve disease
  • hypertension
  • heart failure
  • obesity
  • sleep apnoea
  • congenital heart disease

Other factors include: 

  • hyperthyroidism/hypothyroidism
  • respiratory disease / pneumonia / chest infections
  • pulmonary embolism (PE)
  • alcohol/drugs
  • carbon monoxide poisoning

There may be no apparent reason for developing AF; this is when it is called 'lone' AF.

What are the symptoms of AF?

Some people might not experience any symptoms associated with their AF; however, if they do, the most commonly reported are:

  • palpitations
  • breathlessness
  • tiredness / lethargy
  • reduced exercise capacity
  • chest discomfort
  • dizziness.

Is there more than one type of AF?

There are three types of AF, based on both frequency and duration of AF episodes:

  • Paroxysmal AF – intermittent episodes that return to normal rhythm within seven days.
  • Persistent AF – Episodes that persist for more than seven days and may stop with treatment or sometimes on their own. If it continues for more than 12 months, it is known as long-standing persistent AF.
  • Permanent AF – AF that does not terminate with treatment or it has been decided that accepting AF is the best option for you.

Stroke risk and anticoagulation

During atrial fibrillation, the risk of stroke increases because the atria do not contract/pump normally, which means the flow of blood is slowed.

This can cause blood inside the heart to pool, which may cause a thrombus (clot ) to form. If the blood clot leaves the heart it can travel to any part of the body, such as the brain resulting in a stroke. 

Research has shown that strokes caused by AF are often more severe than non AF-related strokes. 

If you have AF, you are at increased risk of a stroke compared to someone who does not have AF. 

We will assess your risk of stroke by using an international scoring system, called the CHA2DS2VASc score. This looks at other conditions that also increase your risk of stroke, such as diabetes. 

 Congestive heart failure   1
 Hypertension  1
 Age (>75yrs)   2
 Diabetic  1
 Stroke or TIA   2
 Vascular heart disease   1
 Age (65-74 years)   1
 Sex (female)   1

Each condition is given a score of either 1 or 2. 

You will be given a score of 0 if you do not have any of the above risk factors, which is considered low risk (less than 1 per cent risk of stroke per year) and an anticoagulant is not needed.  

A score of 1 is considered moderate risk and an anticoagulant (such as warfarin or one of the newer anticoagulants) may be recommended. Anticoagulants are effective at reducing the risk of thrombus by around 50-60 per cent.

Previously, moderate risk patients were offered antiplatelet drugs, such as aspirin and clopidogrel. However, recent research has shown that antiplatelets are ineffective in reducing the risk of stroke while increasing the risk of bleeding.

A score of 2 or greater is considered as high risk of having a stroke and an anticoagulant is usually recommended. 

The table below shows your stroke risk percentage per year according to your CHADSVASC score. For example, if you have a CHADSVASc score of 2 you have a 2.2 per cent per annum risk of having a stroke without anticoagulation. Therefore, two people in every 100 people over a year will have a stroke.

 CHADSVASc score  Annual stroke risk percentage 
0  0
1  1.3
2  2.2
 3  3.2
 4   4 
 5-10 6.7-15.2

Bleeding risk

Although anticoagulants can reduce the presence of clots and risk of stroke, they can increase the risk of bleeding. It is therefore important that both your stroke risk and bleeding risk are assessed to determine whether an anticoagulant would provide more benefits than risks.

To help identify people at a high risk of bleeding, we use another scoring system called HAS-BLED. 

 Hypertension (uncontrolled BP, systolic >160 mmhg)   1
 Abnormal renal or liver function   1 or 2 
 Stroke   1
 Bleeding  1
 Labile INR (<60 per cent in range)   1
 Elderly   1
 Drugs or alcohol   1 or 2 

A score above 3 is considered high risk for bleeding and needs to be carefully monitored. It does not necessarily mean that you will not be prescribed an anticoagulant as the risk of having a stroke may still be higher than the risk of bleeding.  

The healthcare professional will discuss this with you and will also address factors that could be corrected, such as controlling blood pressure.

Non-invasive cardiology

Non-invasive cardiology is used to diagnose arrhythmias, coronary heart disease and heart failure and includes ECH holter monitoring, cardiopulmonary exercise testing and 24-hour blood pr...

Atrial fibrillation treatments

There are two treatment options for atrial fribrillation – rate control strategy (helping to control the rate of your atrial fibrillation) and rhythm control strategy (helping your heart ...

Atrial fibrillation ablation

Catheter ablation is a keyhole technique during which a small flexible tube (or catheter) is directed to a specific area inside the heart to deliver heat energy to damage (or ablate) abno...

Cardioversion

A cardioversion is a treatment which delivers electrical energy (shock) to the heart using an external defibrillator to get the heart back into sinus rhythm.

Anticoagulant therapy

Anticoagulant medication is used to slow the blood clotting process. It is either used to prevent a clot forming in the blood or to treat clots that have already formed. 

New or novel oral anticoagulants (NOACs)

New or novel oral anticoagulants (or NOACs) reduce the risk of stroke by increasing the time it takes for blood to clot. They are now available as an alternative to warfarin.

Pacemaker implantation

A pacemaker is used to regulate your heartbeat and can help if your heart beats too slowly.

Arrhythmia team

The arrhythmia team includes: 

  • EP consultants
  • clinical nurse specialists
  • an arrhythmia pharmacist 
  • catheter laboratory technicians.  

Consultants

Clinical nurse specialists

  • Natalie Crump 
  • Sue King
  • Sarah Plowright 
  • Alex Wise 

Arrhythmia pharmacist

Contact

Harefield Hospital
01895 828979

Royal Brompton Hospital
020 7351 8364 

Useful links

If you want to know more about arrhythmia, here are some helpful organisations and websites: 


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