Atrial Fibrillation

Health Information

Atrial Fibrillation

UW Health Heart, Vascular and Thoracic Care doctors treat patients with atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm with disorganized electrical activity in the top chambers of the heart.


What is atrial fibrillation?


Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm with disorganized electrical activity in the atria (top chambers of the heart) characterized by an irregular pulse that give the symptoms of palpitations or fluttering. This disorganized atrial electrical activity causes the atria to quiver instead of contract regularly. In the majority of cases, it is not a dangerous rhythm problem, rather just a significant nuisance.




Common symptoms include:

  • Palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath or dizziness
  • Chest discomfort

Some patients do not experience any symptoms during this rhythm. Atrial fibrillation may last from seconds to days.


Diagnosing Your Condition


Drug Therapy


There are two main non-surgical treatment strategies for people with atrial fibrillation:

  • Control the heart rate but leave the heart in AF. This is an easier goal to accomplish, using medications to slow down the AV node and the pulse rate. Types of drugs used for this include calcium channel blockers (verapamil, diltiazem), betablockers (atenolol, metoprolol, etc.), digitalis, and even amiodarone. Occasionally, medication is inadequate and a procedure is needed to ablate or eliminate conduction through the AV node. This ablation makes the pulse very slow requiring the implant of a permanent pacemaker.
  • Restore and maintain sinus rhythm. This is usually less successful, but many people feel better in regular rhythm. The most common drug therapy for maintaining sinus rhythm are antiarrhythmic drugs such as flecainide, propafenone, sotalol, amiodarone and dofetilide. Unfortunately, these drugs do not work all the time and have side effects.