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Atrial Fibrillation

Get expert care for atrial fibrillation–the most common type of arrhythmia–from UNC Medical Center Heart and Vascular Center electrophysiologists who diagnose and treat this condition every day.

You’ll benefit from our expertise in identifying atrial fibrillation, determining the source of your condition and providing you with a complete range of treatments to improve your life.

What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

Your heart normally contracts and relaxes at a regular rate. Atrial fibrillation, an irregular, fast heartbeat, happens when your heart gets chaotic electrical impulses from the two upper chambers (the atria). With atrial fibrillation, your blood does not flow from the atria to the ventricles as it should. Instead, blood can pool in the atria, which increases the chance blood clots may form.

Risks Associated with Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation can lead to diminished quality of life by causing you to experience symptoms such as:

  • Palpitations
  • Fluttering sensation due to irregular heart beat
  • Lightheadedness or near fainting
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath that limits the ability to exercise
  • Chest pain or tightness

Life-Threatening Risks

Atrial fibrillation also can lead you to experience life threatening problems from rapid heart rate, such as:

  • Formation of blood clots in the heart – Clots can break off, migrate to the blood vessel in the brain and obstruct blood flow, which may cause a stroke and, possibly, permanent damage
  • Weakening of the heart muscle, resulting in heart failure
  • Insufficient blood flow to the rest of your body

Atrial Fibrillation Treatment

Take advantage of the expertise on the UNC Medical Center team of electrophysiologists and heart and vascular specialists to help you manage and treat your atrial fibrillation.

Heart Rate Control

When you live with atrial fibrillation, control of your heart rate provides critical help in preventing heart failure. Medications, such as a beta blocker, a calcium-channel blocker or digoxin, usually help achieve heart rate control. Your doctor also may choose to use antiarrhythmic medications to regulate your heart rhythm.

While you take medication, if your heart beats too slowly—even if it’s not fibrillating—your doctor may recommend implanting a pacemaker to regulate your heart rate.

Blood Clot Prevention

Over 90 percent of strokes that occur in non-valvular atrial fibrillation result from clots that form in a small pouch attached to the left atrium called the left atrial appendage (LAA). That means people who live with atrial fibrillation are nearly five times more likely to experience a stroke than someone without this condition.

Anticoagulant (blood thinner) medications are the most effective treatment for preventing blood clots and lowering your risk of stroke. Anticlotting medications (antiplatelet agents) also can lower your risk for stroke.

UNC Medical Center’s team of cardiologists, nurses and pharmacists will collaborate with you to determine the best medications based on your health conditions. Pharmacists who specialize in thrombosis and risk reduction will answer your questions and help you manage your medications.

If you are unable to tolerate blood thinners due to a history of excessive bleeding, UNC Medical Center’s heart and vascular care team may be able to treat you with an innovative, minimally invasive alternative, the Watchman™ Left Atrial Appendage Closure (LAAC) device for atrial fibrillation.

Returning to Normal Rhythm

After an atrial fibrillation episode, your heart may revert to normal rhythm on its own. If it doesn’t, your electrophysiologist may use electrical cardioversion to restore normal rhythm. Electrical cardioversion delivers an electrical shock to your heart from a defibrillator.

If you experience significant atrial fibrillation symptoms after cardioversion, your electrophysiologist may suggest other options to maintain normal heart rhythm, such as:

  • Antiarrhythmic medication – Prevents electrical instability that leads to fibrillation; talk to your doctor about each medication’s effectiveness and side effects
  • Catheter ablation for atrial fibrillation – Helps eliminate or reduce the number and length of atrial fibrillation episodes

Atrial Fibrillation Minimally Invasive Option

UNC Medical Center heart and vascular specialists offer hybrid catheter and surgical ablation (HyCASA), an advanced, minimally invasive catheter and surgical approach for chronic or difficult-to-treat atrial fibrillation.

If your diagnostic evaluation reveals other cardiac abnormalities, such as myocardial ischemia (a painful deficiency of oxygen-rich blood to the heart) or valvular disease, our specialists can help you manage your conditions with myocardial revascularization or valve repair and accompanying atrial fibrillation surgery.

Contact Us

Call the Heart & Vascular Center referral line at 866-862-4327 to find specialists, make an appointment or learn more about preventing heart disease.

Open Access is a new physician referral service, created by the UNC Center for Heart & Vascular Care, which coordinates all admissions and transfers through a single phone call and guarantees immediate acceptance for patients. Please contact us to learn more or call 866-862-4327.

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