Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

As atrial fibrillation (AFib, AF) develops, the patient may be unaware of symptoms. The condition may be discovered incidentally, when a physician notices that the patient's heart rate isn't regular. Heart - MasterfileSometimes, the development of shortness of breath or fatigue compels a patient to seek medical attention. Unfortunately, some patients do not see a doctor until they have suffered a stroke.

Blood may "back up" into the lungs, resulting in the accumulation of fluid. This interferes with normal absorption of oxygen from the lungs into the bloodstream, which can lead to the sensation of shortness of breath. Some patients notice this when they exercise or exert themselves. Others notice it when they lie down at night and find they must sleep with their head elevated to avoid waking up short of breath. Fluid can accumulate in the feet, ankles, legs, and sometimes the abdomen as well, causing swelling (edema).

Also, when the amount of blood being pumped throughout the body decreases, the patient may experience fatigue. When too little blood reaches the brain, the patient may experience lightheadedness or fainting. When contractions become very rapid, sometimes 200 per minute, the patient experiences palpitations.

Complications of Atrial Fibrillation

The most devastating complication of AFib occurs when a blood clot forms in the left atrium, travels to the left ventricle, and is pumped to the brain. When a blood clot lodges in one of the arteries supplying the brain with blood, it can block blood flow to that part of the brain and cause a stroke. Stroke can be severe and can cause permanent paralysis of part of the body, speech impairment, and even death. Unfortunately, stroke can occur at any time, usually without warning.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jul 2000

Last Modified: 31 Mar 2014