Atrial Fibrillation – Raising awareness on an often undiagnosed heart rhythm problem

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is the most common abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) in the UK. Its believed an estimated 1.5 million people are affected by the problem. Furthermore, around 500,000 people in the UK have undiagnosed AF and may actually be unaware of it.


AF is the most common abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) in the UK with an estimated 1.5 million people believed to be affected by the problem. Furthermore, around 500,000 people in the UK have undiagnosed AF and may actually be unaware of it.

So why is AF a problem?

Atrial Fibrillation can affect anyone but our chances of developing this heart rhythm disorder increases with age affecting four out of every 100 people over the age of 65. We know that if AF is left untreated it can increase our risk of serious and life-threatening Stroke.

What is AF?

AF is a heart rhythm disorder which affects the top two chambers of our heart called our atria. When the normal (sinus) rhythm of the heart is affected by electrical signals originating somewhere other than the heart’s natural pacemaker (the sinoatrial node), the atria begin to contract in an often rapid, irregular and uncoordinated way. This causes the atria to quiver or ‘fibrillate’ hence the name. If this is left untreated (i.e. not intervened on through appropriate medical or cardiac intervention) then the remaining blood left in the atria is not ‘kicked out’ into the ventricles (the heart’s main pumping chambers). Over time this can lead to stagnant blood collecting in the atria and clots forming which can increase our risk of stroke.

What are the symptoms of AF?

Some people with AF tell us they feel that their heart is racing, beating erratically, or they may experience the feeling of palpitations or butterflies in their chest. At the same time these symptoms may make some people feel either short of breath, light-headed, experience chest discomfort or a sensation in their throat, tired/fatigued or a collection of all of these symptoms. However, many people with AF do not experience any symptoms and it may only be picked up during a health assessment either with someone like me an exercise physiologist, a GP or other health professional.

Importantly, all of these abovementioned symptoms may not necessarily indicate something is wrong with your heart but if you have any of these symptoms you should discuss these with your GP or your health specialist at the earliest opportunity. Often it is only through having a health assessment that we may be able to identify and confirm any heart rhythm abnormalities.
“If you have any significant symptoms that persist either at rest or during physical activity/exercise it is important that seek immediate emergency medical attention. Never drive or ask anyone else to drive you to hospital should you become acutely unwell, simply allow the paramedics to take you to hospital if the need was to ever arise”.

Am I at risk of developing AF?

Although AF can affect people at any age its more common as we get older, it’s also more likely if we have certain heart conditions such as coronary heart disease, heart valve disease/disorders, congenital heart disease, Cardiomyopathy, pericarditis and heart failure. It is also common following heart surgery and certain cardiac procedures. Other medical conditions such as thyroid disorders, asthma, COPD, high blood pressure and diabetes may also increase our risk of AF. A range of lifestyle factors such as obesity, smoking, high consumption of caffeine and alcohol and taking illicit drugs (including amphetamines or cocaine) can also put us at higher risk of developing AF.

Thankfully the risk of Stroke can be prevented by prescribed anti-coagulation medication (such as Warfarin or newer medication such as Apixaban or Rivaroxaban) and by simply checking our pulse. This week the AF Association is highlighting how easy it is to check your pulse to identify if your heart rhythm is normal. Let’s all take a moment to check our pulse and reduce our risk of Stroke.
If you are unsure or need advice speak to your GP, Nurse Specialist or Clinical Exercise Physiologist for further advice.

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