Atrial Fibrillation

The most common type of abnormal heart rhythm. More than 15 million people in the U.S. are expected to have atrial fibrillation.

AFib can cause your heart to beat irregularly. You may feel a fluttering sensation in your chest that comes and goes unpredictably.

When caught early, you can restore your heart’s normal rhythm with medication or minimally invasive procedures, such as catheter ablation.

The heart is a muscular pump made up of valves, pipes and an electrical system. Problems within the electrical system cause irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias). AFib is the most common type of arrhythmia.

If you have AFib, your heartbeat can be fast, chaotic and irregular. AFib can lead to blood clots, stroke or heart failure because your heart isn’t pumping blood like it should.

AFib has three stages (The Three Ps):

  1. Paroxysmal: In the beginning, your heart goes in and out of rhythm on its own.
  2. Persistent: As AFib advances, your heart still goes in and out of rhythm. But it won’t return to normal without treatment.
  3. Permanent: AFib can become chronic, or permanent. When this happens, doctors can’t get your heart back into a normal rhythm.

AFib Symptoms

You may be able to feel your heart beating irregularly. Some describe it as a flip-flop, fluttering or flickering feeling in their chest. It’s also possible to notice heart rate abnormalities if you wear a fitness tracker, such as a smartwatch.

Although AFib does not always have noticeable symptoms, other signs include:

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Heart palpitations
  • Light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stroke

Understanding Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF)

The heart is a muscular pump made up of valves, pipes and an electrical system. Problems within the electrical system cause irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias). AFib is the most common type of arrhythmia.

If you have AFib, your heartbeat can be fast, chaotic and irregular. AFib can lead to blood clots, stroke or heart failure because your heart isn’t pumping blood like it should.

AFib has three stages (The Three Ps):

  1. Paroxysmal: In the beginning, your heart goes in and out of rhythm on its own.
  2. Persistent: As AFib advances, your heart still goes in and out of rhythm. But it won’t return to normal without treatment.
  3. Permanent: AFib can become chronic, or permanent. When this happens, doctors can’t get your heart back into a normal rhythm.

AFib Symptoms

You may be able to feel your heart beating irregularly. Some describe it as a flip-flop, fluttering or flickering feeling in their chest. It’s also possible to notice heart rate abnormalities if you wear a fitness tracker, such as a smartwatch.

Although AFib does not always have noticeable symptoms, other signs include:

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Heart palpitations
  • Light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stroke

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and listen to your heartbeat. Because arrhythmias are unpredictable, your heart may or may not appear normal at this time. Your doctor will also ask you to describe your symptoms.

If no arrhythmia is present, your doctor may have you wear a portable device to track your heart rhythms for 24 hours or longer. Fitness tracker data can also help your doctor determine if you have an arrhythmia.

Doctors consider electrocardiograms (EKG or ECG) the gold standard when it comes to diagnosing AFib. EKGs are often performed in your doctor’s office or at the hospital. They are painless and take minutes to complete. During an EKG:

  1. Your doctor attaches electrodes (sensors) to your chest and limbs using an adhesive. This takes a few minutes.
  2. The electrodes record your heart’s electrical activity for 10 seconds.

Can fitness trackers detect heart problems?

Fitness trackers that monitor your heartrate can help diagnose AFib. It’s hard to catch an arrhythmia early — irregular rhythms often stop as quickly as they start. But fitness trackers can give doctors a valuable history of your heart’s activity.

Diagnosing Atrial Fibrilation

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and listen to your heartbeat. Because arrhythmias are unpredictable, your heart may or may not appear normal at this time. Your doctor will also ask you to describe your symptoms.

If no arrhythmia is present, your doctor may have you wear a portable device to track your heart rhythms for 24 hours or longer. Fitness tracker data can also help your doctor determine if you have an arrhythmia.

Doctors consider electrocardiograms (EKG or ECG) the gold standard when it comes to diagnosing AFib. EKGs are often performed in your doctor’s office or at the hospital. They are painless and take minutes to complete. During an EKG:

  1. Your doctor attaches electrodes (sensors) to your chest and limbs using an adhesive. This takes a few minutes.
  2. The electrodes record your heart’s electrical activity for 10 seconds.

Can fitness trackers detect heart problems?

Fitness trackers that monitor your heartrate can help diagnose AFib. It’s hard to catch an arrhythmia early — irregular rhythms often stop as quickly as they start. But fitness trackers can give doctors a valuable history of your heart’s activity.

IU Health Heart & Vascular Care is home to internationally recognized leaders in the treatment of heart rhythm disorders — that’s why doctors from around the U.S. refer their patients to us. Our physicians treat more patients with complex arrhythmias than any other heart care program in Indiana. That means you receive expert care for AFib.

Catching AFib early is critical to successful outcomes. Our treatments include:

  • Medications: Maintain normal heart rhythms and prevent strokes
  • Catheter ablation: Destroys the electrical signals responsible for atrial fibrillation with heat or cold energy. Learn more about catheter ablation.
  • Left atrial appendage closure: Atrial fibrillation increases stroke risk five-fold. More than 90% of the blood clots in patients with atrial fibrillation are in the left atrial appendage. This heart structure is a small cul-de-sac within the left atrium, or upper heart chamber. Doctors can use a device to close the appendage, eliminating any need for long-term oral anticoagulation medication (blood thinners). We frequently use this procedure to help patients with atrial fibrillation. Read about left atrial appendage closure.

Our atrial fibrillation team

Our AFib team meets regularly to provide personalized treatment plans for our patients — and adjust them when needed. Our team of AFib experts includes:

  • Cardiologists (heart doctors)
  • Electrophysiologists (heart rhythm experts)
  • Heart surgeons
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Researchers
  • Physician assistants

Our AFib procedure outcomes

We are one of the only institutions in the state participating in The American College of Cardiology’s AFib Ablation Registry. This registry allows us to better track our AFib data and performance.

Our participation ensures you receive quality care and evidence-based treatments with proven results.

Atrial Fibrillation Treatment at IU Health

IU Health Heart & Vascular Care is home to internationally recognized leaders in the treatment of heart rhythm disorders — that’s why doctors from around the U.S. refer their patients to us. Our physicians treat more patients with complex arrhythmias than any other heart care program in Indiana. That means you receive expert care for AFib.

Catching AFib early is critical to successful outcomes. Our treatments include:

  • Medications: Maintain normal heart rhythms and prevent strokes
  • Catheter ablation: Destroys the electrical signals responsible for atrial fibrillation with heat or cold energy. Learn more about catheter ablation.
  • Left atrial appendage closure: Atrial fibrillation increases stroke risk five-fold. More than 90% of the blood clots in patients with atrial fibrillation are in the left atrial appendage. This heart structure is a small cul-de-sac within the left atrium, or upper heart chamber. Doctors can use a device to close the appendage, eliminating any need for long-term oral anticoagulation medication (blood thinners). We frequently use this procedure to help patients with atrial fibrillation. Read about left atrial appendage closure.

Our atrial fibrillation team

Our AFib team meets regularly to provide personalized treatment plans for our patients — and adjust them when needed. Our team of AFib experts includes:

  • Cardiologists (heart doctors)
  • Electrophysiologists (heart rhythm experts)
  • Heart surgeons
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Researchers
  • Physician assistants

Our AFib procedure outcomes

We are one of the only institutions in the state participating in The American College of Cardiology’s AFib Ablation Registry. This registry allows us to better track our AFib data and performance.

Our participation ensures you receive quality care and evidence-based treatments with proven results.

Our cardiovascular researchers are working tirelessly to improve AFib care. They often collaborate on the latest advances — from heart procedures to medical therapy. Their efforts have led to shorter, safer procedures, which means a faster recovery and less downtime for you.

Some of our focus areas include:

  • Treating the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions (breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, pupil size) to reduce atrial fibrillation
  • Using different forms of energy for ablation procedures, including cold, heat, and laser
  • Exploring the possibility of same-day discharges for procedures that typically require patients to stay in the hospital for several days

Our AFib Research

Our cardiovascular researchers are working tirelessly to improve AFib care. They often collaborate on the latest advances — from heart procedures to medical therapy. Their efforts have led to shorter, safer procedures, which means a faster recovery and less downtime for you.

Some of our focus areas include:

  • Treating the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions (breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, pupil size) to reduce atrial fibrillation
  • Using different forms of energy for ablation procedures, including cold, heat, and laser
  • Exploring the possibility of same-day discharges for procedures that typically require patients to stay in the hospital for several days

Patient Stories for Atrial Fibrillation