Harvard Men's Health Watch

Atrial fibrillation: Living with a common heart condition

Preventing stroke is the top priority if your heart is beating irregularly. A variety of options can control symptoms.

A flutter in the chest and a racing heartbeat could be just a passing cardiac blip, perhaps triggered by emotional stress or too much caffeine. But sometimes it's a sign of atrial fibrillation—the irregular quivering of the heart's upper chambers, or atria.

The first priority with any new case of atrial fibrillation (afib) is to determine if you need to take a blood thinner (anticoagulant) to prevent strokes. "In atrial fibrillation, you're at risk of clots forming in the heart, which can go anywhere in the body but predominantly go to the brain," says Dr. Christian Ruff, a cardiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Most people will end up taking an anticoagulant for life, which can reduce their risk of stroke between 60 and 80 percent."

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