Having atrial fibrillation does not mean you are having a heart attack. Learn what happens to the heart during each of these cardiac events and the risks faced afterward.
Heart problems vary considerably from one to the next. They range from inherited rhythm disorders to hardened arteries that clog over time. Similarly, some cardiac events are more serious than others. An episode of atrial fibrillation, for example, is not the same as a heart attack. A heart attack is life-threatening, while atrial fibrillation, normally, is not.
“Atrial fibrillation is an isolated electrical event, not a heart attack. You could say that atrial fibrillation has to do with electricity and heart attack has to do with plumbing,” says Sandeep K. Jain, MD, a cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiology specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Some biology can further explain the distinction. “Heart attack and atrial fibrillation are completely different. In a heart attack, blood flow to the heart is blocked and heart muscle dies. This leads to ventricular fibrillation, which means the main ventricles of your heart are not pumping. In atrial fibrillation the upper chambers of the heart are pumping chaotically, but the ventricles are still doing their job,” says A. Marc Gillinov, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic.
Afib vs. Heart Attack: What Happens?
A heart attack is usually caused by a buildup of cholesterol and other substances inside one or more of the arteries that supply blood to your heart’s muscles. This is called coronary heart disease, and the buildup itself is called plaque. If some plaque breaks free, a blood clot can form and shut down the artery.
A heart attack feels like pain, pressure, or squeezing in the center of your chest. You may also have cold sweats and nausea and feel short of breath. You may feel the pain in your jaw, neck, or arms.
Risk factors for a heart attack include:
- Older age
- Family history of heart attack
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Atrial fibrillation is caused by abnormal electrical signals that start in the upper chambers of the heart. As the abnormal signals move through your heart, you may not feel anything, or you may feel your heart flutter and beat rapidly as you feel short of breath, tired, and lightheaded. “Atrial fibrillation may cause chest discomfort if the heart is beating very rapidly, but this type of chest pain is not as severe as a heart attack and rarely leads to a heart attack,” says Dr. Gillinov.
Risk factors for atrial fibrillation include:
- Older age
- Previous heart disease
- High blood pressure
Heart Attack and Afib Complications
The biggest risk from atrial fibrillation is a stroke. “A stroke from atrial fibrillation occurs when a blood clot forms in the upper part of the heart because blood is not moving well. If the clot travels out of the heart to the brain, it can cause a stroke. The risk of stroke with atrial fibrillation is about 3 to 15 percent every year. But it is important to know that atrial fibrillation is not a life-threatening disease if it is well-managed,” says Dr. Jain.
The biggest risk from a heart attack is sudden cardiac arrest. Most people who have heart attacks survive and recover, but if heart attack leads to sudden cardiac arrest, your heart is not pumping well enough to keep you alive. Death can occur within minutes.
In some people, afib can develop after a heart attack. A study published in the journal Circulation followed 3,220 patients who were hospitalized for a first heart attack from 1983 to 2007. Only 304 patients had atrial fibrillation before their heart attack. The researchers found that after the heart attack 729 of the patients developed atrial fibrillation. Over the next 6.6 years the patients with atrial fibrillation after their heart attack had an increased risk of death compared to those without afib, and the highest risk was for those who developed afib more than 30 days afterward. The researchers concluded that atrial fibrillation after a heart attack does carry an increased risk of death.
Bottom Line on Afib and Heart Attack
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, in the United States. Although stroke is a serious atrial fibrillation risk, atrial fibrillation is not considered to be a life-threatening cardiac event. Most people can live a normal and active life with the right treatment.
Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease in the United States. It causes about 935,000 heart attacks every year and more than 385,000 deaths. Most people will survive a heart attack, but it is important to know the warning signs and to get help right away.
Working closely with your doctor to reduce your risk factors and find the best treatment is the best way to reduce your risk from both of these cardiac events.
Articles from ：everydayhealth.com