Harvard Heart Letter

What it means when your doctor says…"You have atrial fibrillation"

Perhaps you told your doctor you could feel your heart pounding in your chest, were short of breath, or felt very tired. Maybe you didn't have any symptoms at all. Either way, your doctor ordered tests that determined you have atrial fibrillation.

In atrial fibrillation the two upper chambers of the heart, the atria, start quivering instead of pumping efficiently and regularly. The heartbeat becomes irregular and faster. Some people find this arrhythmia frightening or otherwise distressing; others do not feel it at all. Either way, untreated atrial fibrillation is a major risk factor for stroke.

"Right now, one in every four strokes in people over age 80 is attributed to atrial fibrillation. These numbers could rise, since the number of people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation is expected to increase over the next 20 years as our population ages," says Dr. Peter Zimetbaum, a heart rhythm specialist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »