Trauma Survivors Network - provided by ATS

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A Program of the ATS

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm. The heart has four chambers (two ventricles and two atria). The atria (pleural for atrium) sit above the ventricles. The atria receive blood from different areas of the body. When the atria are fibrillating, rapid, abnormal, and ineffective contractions occur. During atrial fibrillation the blood is not being properly pumped from one chamber to another, which may cause blood clots to form in the atria. If the clots move a stroke can occur. Another complication of atrial fibrillation is rapid ventricular response. With this condition, the ventricles try to beat as fast as the atria causing an inadequate amount of blood to be pump to the needed areas of the body. If patients are able to communicate they may complain of pounding or fluttering in the chest, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing while lying down, dizziness, light-headedness, weakness, and confusion. The care provider will observe atrial fibrillation by viewing the rhythm of the heart on the bedside monitor and by listening to the heart with a stethoscope. The blood pressure may be normal or low.

An echocardiogram (measures electrical changes of the heart) will be ordered to diagnose atrial fibrillation. If the patient is not experiencing problems such as a low blood pressure the doctor may decide to monitor the patient, but not treat the condition. If the patient begins to have problems, medications to convert the rhythm (change the rhythm to a regular heart) will be given to the patient. If the patient will not convert with the medications, the doctor may order electrical cardioversion. Electrical cardioversion is the use of small currents of electricity to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm and normal heart rate. If electrical cardioversion is needed the patient will be given drugs to put him/her to sleep during the procedure. The procedure will be done at the bedside. Patients suffering atrial fibrillation are at an increased risk of stroke. Overall fibrillation can be controlled with medical treatment.