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What Can Trigger Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib or AF is the most common heart arrhythmia or heart rhythm disorder in the US and around the world. AFib begins in the atria, the upper to chambers of the heart. Typically, errant electrical signals in the heart lead to an irregular heartbeat. This can cause significant symptoms including shortness of breath, pain, a sense that the patient’s heart is beating out of their chest and more. Many patients believe that they are having a heart attack and end up in the emergency room. More importantly, AFib can increase the risk of stroke by up to five times and, over the long term, can weaken the heart, leading to heart failure.

AFib can sometimes be difficult to diagnose because it is not necessarily persistent. Paroxysmal or occasional AFib may only happen on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Some patients may have years between episodes.

Knowing the triggers of AFib, however, can be helpful in identifying the symptoms and notifying your doctor so that you can begin an appropriate course of treatment. Some of the most common triggers for AFib include:

  • Sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep can cause a host of changes in the body not least of which is triggering an episode of AFib. During sleep deprivation, the body is under stress and we know that stress can cause a number of cardiac events
  • Other forms of stress can trigger an episode of AFib include emotional or psychological issues and concerns or physical stress, even including exercise. Anything that increases the heart rate can also affect heart rhythm
  • Illnesses and the medications we use to treat them can also cause the development of AFib. Anything from recovery after surgery to viral or bacterial infections can create an irregular heartbeat situation
  • Natural hormonal changes in women, for example during menstrual cycles and pregnancy, may trigger AFib
  • Alcohol, drugs and highly caffeinated beverages including energy drinks may increase the risk of heart rhythm issues

AFib episodes may be temporary or last quite a while. Often, your primary care physician is limited in accurately measuring irregular heartbeats over the long term, as most only use basic EKGs to measure heart rhythm. Speaking to an experienced electrophysiologist, such as those at the Huntington Heart Center, can get effective treatment started early. We take a measured approach by first determining the incidence and severity of the irregular heart rhythm, usually with the use of an external heart rate monitor. From there, we typically suggest lifestyle change, followed by medication and if both fail, ultimately a procedure such as cardiac catheter ablation to cure the heart rhythm issue.

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