Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition where your heartbeat is irregular, and sometimes too fast or too slow.
What is atrial fibrillation?
You may be very aware of symptoms, such as heart palpitations, tiredness or shortness of breath, or sometimes you may be largely unaware that there is anything wrong.
Atrial fibrillation is common, with an estimated 2.5% of the UK population affected (NICE, March 2023). You are more likely to develop the condition as you become older – there is a substantial rise in cases of atrial fibrillation above the age of 55 years, which increases rapidly in each subsequent 5 years of life. As many as 15.4% of people over 80 years may have atrial fibrillation (Rotterdam study, European Heart Journal, 2006).
Since atrial fibrillation is associated with a higher risk of developing stroke and heart failure, you need to see a doctor, who can organise the appropriate tests, and any subsequent treatment.
How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?
Our consultants are specialists in the field of electrophysiology (the medical field that relates to electrical activity in the heart). They are experts in diagnosing and treating atrial fibrillation.
To diagnose the condition, they provide a range of tests, which usually include:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) - where your heart's rhythm is recorded on a moving strip of paper or a line on a computer screen.
- Echocardiography - where ultrasound is used to investigate the action of the heart.
- Ambulatory ECG monitoring (e.g. Holter monitoring) - this involves wearing a battery-operated device for a period of time as you go about your day-to-day activities, measuring the activity of your heart.
Treatment for atrial fibrillation
Treatment is tailored to your own particular needs by your specialist, but may include the following:
- Medication to help control your heart rate and rhythm.
- Cardioversion - where your heart is given a controlled electric shock (while under a brief anaesthetic), with the aim of getting its rhythm back to normal.
- Catheter ablation - where the abnormal area of your heart is carefully targeted, usually under general anaesthetic.
- Hybrid AF ablation - a combination of minimally invasive surgery and catheter ablation used to treat selected cases of persistent atrial fibrillation (AF).
- Cardiac pacemaker insertion - to control any slow heart rates during atrial fibrillation.
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