Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a type of irregular heartbeat. It means your heart is not working as well as it could and it may make you more likely to have a stroke. About 750,000 people in the UK are living with AF, and it’s more common as we get older.
The following could be a sign that you have AF:
- Palpitations (being aware of your heart beating fast)
- Chest pain
No symptoms but an irregular pulse over one minute
If you think you have some of these symptoms, it is important to talk to your GP. To find out if you have AF, a doctor or nurse will check your pulse. If it feels irregular, they may refer you for more tests to check whether you have AF.
AF and its link to stroke
AF can increase your risk of stroke by up to five times.
A stroke happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off. This could be due to a blockage in an artery (‘ischaemic stroke’) or by bleeding in the brain (‘haemorrhagic stroke’). A transient ischaemic attack (TIA) or ‘mini stroke’ is similar to a stroke, but the symptoms are temporary.
Your heart is a muscle and its job is to pump blood around your body. This pumping action creates your pulse. A normal pulse, when you are resting, is regular and between 60 to 100 beats per minute. If you have AF your heart beats in an irregular way (sometimes up to 140 times a minute).
If you have an irregular heartbeat, your heart may not have a chance to relax and empty itself of blood properly before filling up again. As a result, the blood does not move quickly and smoothly, and can form clots. If these clots then travel in the blood stream towards the brain, they could block the blood flow to your brain and cause a stroke or TIA.
If you are concerned that you may have AF, it is important for you to Ask First. Make sure you ask your GP for a pulse check to find out whether you may have AF. It could mean that you prevent a future stroke from happening.
Treatments to help prevent AF related strokes
There are a number of treatment options for AF, ranging from simple medications to more complex procedures, which you should discuss with your GP or specialist. As well as considering your irregular heartbeat, your doctor will also assess your risk of stroke.
Strokes can be prevented, so if they find you have a higher risk, the right treatment can lower your chances of having a stroke. The main treatment is blood thinning medication.
Some medications to thin the blood are called anti-coagulants such as Warfarin. These medications make your blood less likely to clot. Warfarin isn’t suitable for everyone and there are a number of new anticoagulants which have recently been approved. Information about these new medications, and more about stroke risk reduction in AF, can be found on the NICE website.
Once on medication, you will need regular tests to check your blood isn’t getting too thin and to watch what you eat, drink and your other medications while on it.
Other blood thinning medications belong to a group called anti-platelets, for example aspirin and clopidogrel. They are used to reduce your risk of stroke if your risk is low, but they aren’t as effective if you have AF.
Did you know?
If you have AF, Warfarin can reduce your risk of stroke by 60%
Download our Ask First leaflet
Read our Ask First leaflet which is full of information on what AF is and its symptoms. If you have AF, it also has a useful checklist to take to your doctor.
Download the Ask First leaflet in English
Download the Ask First leaflet in Welsh
What else can I do to reduce my risk of stroke?
There are some simple ways you can change your lifestyle to lower your chances of having a stroke. To find out more please go to the stroke prevention section of our website.
These other organisations also provide information on AF:
Atrial Fibrillation Association
PO Box 1219, Chew Magna
Bristol, BS40 8WB
Tel: 01789 451 837
PO Box 405, Bromley, Kent, BR2 9WP
Tel: 020 8289 6875