Harvard Women's Health Watch

Managing atrial fibrillation

When heart rhythm is in disarray, medications can often help. But if they don't do the trick, other treatments are available.

In novels and poetry, a fluttering heart often signals romance or high drama. In ordinary life, it could be a sign of a heart rhythm disorder called atrial fibrillation (AF) — a condition that occurs when the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) contract abnormally. The symptoms may include lightheadedness and fatigue as well as a fluttering or racing sensation in the chest and sometimes chest pain. AF affects nearly 2.3 million adults in the United States, and the risk rises with age: In our 50s, only 1 in 200 of us has AF, but by the time we reach our 80s, that ratio is 1 in 12. Women tend to develop the condition five to eight years later than men do, but they're more likely to die prematurely of the disease.

It's important to distinguish AF — which is not, in the vast majority of cases, life-threatening — from ventricular fibrillation, which is fatal if not treated within minutes. Ventricular fibrillation is a rhythmic dysfunction of the ventricles, the heart's main pumping chambers. AF doesn't trigger ventricular fibrillation, and the two arrhythmias have distinctly different causes and consequences.

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