An irregular or rapid heartbeat can be a symptom of atrial fibrillation, a condition that often prevents the heart from pumping adequate blood to the rest of the body. Atrial fibrillation forces the heart to work much harder than normal while restricting blood flow to the arms, legs and other extremities.
A healthy heart has two upper chambers (atria) that beat in a rhythm with the two lower chambers (ventricles). When your atria and ventricles are out of sync, beating irregularly and chaotically, you might experience symptoms such as:
- Heart palpitations, including racing, irregular or rapid heartbeat, or a ‘flip-flopping’ feeling in the chest
- General fatigue or weakness
- Lightheadedness, dizziness or confusion
- Shortness of breath, especially during physical exertion
- Chest pain
Because atrial fibrillation can come and go sporadically, many people do not find out they have an irregular heartbeat until a doctor discovers the condition during a physical examination. If you notice an irregular heartbeat or associated symptoms, you should seek medical treatment immediately. While not usually life-threatening, atrial fibrillation can lead to fatal complications like blood clots or strokes.
What Causes Atrial Fibrillation?
A healthy heart has a natural ‘pacemaker’ called a sinus node. The sinus node produces an electrical impulse that triggers each chamber of your heart to contract at the right time, producing a regular heartbeat. If the upper and lower chambers do not receive the correct electrical impulse signals, they will not contract in the normal rhythm, leading to chaotic and irregular heartbeats.
Atrial fibrillation commonly results from:
- Structural heart damage
- High blood pressure
- Heart attacks
- Coronary artery disease
- Abnormal heart valves
- Congenital heart disease
- Overactive thyroid
- Medications, tobacco or caffeine
- Alcohol consumption
- Infection or disease
- Lack of sleep or sleep apnea
Treatment for atrial fibrillation usually involves medication to prevent blood clots and other efforts to improve the electrical impulses that control heartbeats.