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Atrial fibrillation

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a heart condition that makes a person's heart beat in an irregular way, including too fast.

What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:

Seek medical advice for these symptoms - and urgently if there is a pulse change or chest pain.

Atrial fibrillation complications

Undiagnosed or untreated atrial fibrillation increases the risk of having a stroke or weakening the heart so that it cannot pump blood effectively, called heart failure.

How do I check my pulse?

To check your pulse, first sit still for at least 5 minutes - and avoid coffee, caffeine and smoking before doing these steps:

Hold out the left wrist facing upwards.

Place the index finger (next to the thumb) and middle finger of the right hand onto the left wrist at the bottom of the thumb.

Once you find the pulse, use a watch or clock with a second hand or timer on your phone to time 30 seconds while you count the pulses. Double the number to get beats per minute.

A number between 60-100 is normal, but atrial fibrillation can make the pulse far higher and less regular.

How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?

A doctor or nurse will check the pulse and may use an electrocardiogram (ECG) connected to electrodes on the chest, arms and legs to record the heart's electrical activity for around 5 minutes. This will show the beats per minute and the gaps between beats to show if they are regular or not.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says special blood pressure monitors that automatically detect pulse irregularity whilst recording blood pressure may be an option to help detect AF in GP surgeries and clinics. Further testing will be arranged if the device suggests AF.

Other tests may include:

  • Echocardiogram - ultrasound scan of the heart to check valves and structures.
  • Chest X-ray to look for lung problems linked to the atrial fibrillation.
  • Blood tests for anaemia, kidney problems or overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).

After an atrial fibrillation diagnosis, you may have to tell the DVLA and your insurance company, because it could affect driving safety. Check with your doctor. It may also affect travel insurance.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

It’s not always possible to identify why a person has developed atrial fibrillation, but having other heart and circulation problems increases the chance of it happening, including:

Other triggers and conditions, other than heart problems, that may also increase the chances of developing atrial fibrillation, include:

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