Illinois Neurological Institute

Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) & Stroke

What is AFib and why is it a problem?

heart-brain.jpg Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular heartbeat, or a condition in which the atria fail to contract in a strong, rhythmic way. When a heart is in AFib, it may not be pumping enough oxygen-rich blood out to the body.

What are the greatest risks of having AFib?

The greatest risk of AFib is stroke. You are 5 times more likely to have a stroke than someone who doesn’t have atrial fibrillation. You also have a risk of eventual heart failure due to the weakening of the heart muscle. 

Learn more about Stroke

When do I see my doctor?

As soon as you notice the symptoms of AFib, contact your physician. Even if your symptoms go away, it’s still important to have a physical exam and monitor your heart’s activity.

Common Symptoms of AFib

  • Racing Heart, Fluttering or Palpitations.
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Light headiness
  • Or No Noticeable symptoms At All. People with no symptoms may be diagnosed by an exam and an EKG.

Why is AFib associated with a 5X greater risk for stroke?

When the heart is in AFib, blood can become static and may be left pooling inside the upper chamber (called the left atrium.)

  • When blood pools, a clot can form.
  • When a clot is pumped out of the heart, it can travel to the brain, block an artery in the brain, and cause a stroke.
  • Blocked arteries prevent the tissue “downstream” from getting oxygen-rich blood, and without oxygen the tissue dies.

If I have no AFib symptoms, am I still at risk for stroke?

Yes! Do not stop taking medication simply because you are not experiencing noticeable symptoms. Many people with AFib should be on anticoagulant medications which will lower stroke risks when taken correctly

Possible risk factors for AFib

Many people do not know how they developed AFib, but it is most often caused by a combination of factors.

Possible Heart Health Factors

  • Prior Heart Attack or Heart Disease
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes 
  • Sleep apnea

Behaviors that may be associated

  • Extensive Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Prolonged athletic Conditioning 

What treatments should I expect?

In certain cases, medical intervention may be needed to restore the heart’s normal rate and rhythm, and many AFib patients need medication to lower stroke risks.

AFib interventions may involve cardioversion, “blood thinners,” medications for rate and/or rhythm control, and possibly catheter ablation or surgery if other treatments fail to reduce risks and symptoms.

Let your doctor know if you are having symptoms, and continue following your doctor’s orders until otherwise directed.

Atrial Fibrillation Resources

Watch Atrial Fibrillation Video

View Atrial Fibrillation in our Health Library