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Atrial Fibrillation

Over 40,000 people here are living with AF, and up to 10,000 may be living with it undetected.

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is a type of irregular heartbeat which can make your risk of having a stroke five times higher.

A normal heart rate is usually anywhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute at rest, with a steady rhythm. If you have AF, your heart won’t have a regular beat and may be abnormally fast. As a result, the heart may not empty its chambers of blood at each beat, increasing the risk of a clot forming in the blood left behind. This can then travel to the brain and cause a stroke.

At NICHS, we’re still providing our vital services during the COVID-19 pandemic to inform people in Northern Ireland about the risks of AF and how they can maintain a healthier lifestyle. With almost 90% of our funds coming from the public, we need your donations more than ever, so we can keep ‘Caring through COVID’ and continue our prevention and campaigning work.

  • Atrial fibrillation, or AF, is the most common type of irregular heart rhythm. It causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate.

  • Sometimes people with AF have no symptoms and their condition is only detectable during a medical examination or by having a health check with Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke.

    Some people may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

    • Feeling very tired
    • Feeling faint at times
    • Being breathless
    • Palpitations, fluttering or thumping in the chest
  • If your heart does not have a regular heartbeat, it may not empty its chambers of blood at each beat. A clot could form in the blood left behind, which can then travel to the brain and cause a stroke.

    • Between 30-40% of people may not be aware they have AF until they have a stroke.
    • Up to 25% of ischaemic strokes due to occur because of AF.

    People with AF are likely to have a much more severe stroke with:

    • Almost double the death rate from stroke
    • Increased disability from stroke
    • Longer hospital stays
    • Increased risk of a stroke happening again
  • Atrial fibrillation is the most common abnormal heart rhythm. But with the right treatment plan, you can live a long and healthy life. These have two aims – to reduce the risk of stroke and to manage the day-to-day symptoms and effects of AF.

    In addition to taking your medication, you should aim to have a healthy lifestyle, which you should discuss with your doctor.

  • If you’re diagnosed with AF, your doctor will devise a treatment plan with two aims – to reduce your risk of stroke and to bring the rate and rhythm of your heart under control.

    Preventing a stroke

    Working with your doctor to reduce stroke risk is the most important thing you can do to make sure you have a good prognosis with AF.

    Your doctor may prescribe anti-coagulant medicines (blood thinners) to reduce the risk of blood clot formation. It is important to take anticoagulation medication exactly as prescribed to reduce your risk of stroke.

    Controlling your heart rate and heartbeat

    There are three potential treatments your doctor may carry out for the symptoms of AF to try to restore your heart to a normal rhythm:

    1. Prescribe medication – this will aim to control the rate and rhythm of your heartbeat.
    2. Cardio-version – this is a treatment where electrical signals are sent to your heart through electrodes placed on the chest.
    3. Ablation – this treatment uses heat or freezing on the area of your heart that’s causing the abnormal heart rhythm
  • What causes AF and how can it be prevented?

    The cause of AF is not fully understood but there are certain factors that can increase the risk of developing AF. Some health conditions including heart failure, high blood pressure or other cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or thyroid disorders can increase your risk, as can having a family history of AF. As you get older, your likelihood of developing AF may also increase.

    While your risk of developing AF increases with the above-mentioned factors, many people develop AF for no explainable reason.

    However, there are lifestyle changes that can be made to help prevent AF and these include the following:

  • If you would like further support in managing your AF please contact us about our Taking Control Self-management Programme, which is now online. Taking Control aims to give people the skills and confidence they need to better manage their long-term health condition.

    Find out more about Taking Control.

  • If you have experienced symptoms of AF or think you may have it, make an appointment with your GP.

    Our Face-to-Face Well Checks* also include an AF test.

    Book yours online here

    (*Availability subject to current COVID-19 restrictions)

If you think you have AF or if it has been detected during your health check with us, you should book an appointment with your GP immediately.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common abnormal heart rhythm and, although it’s a serious condition, you can live a long and healthy life with the right treatment plan in place. Working with your doctor to reduce stroke risk is the most important thing you can do to make sure you have a good prognosis with AF. In addition to taking your medication, you should also aim to have a healthy lifestyle, which you should discuss with your doctor.

Our Face-to-Face Well Checks* include an AF test.

Book yours online here

(*Availability subject to current COVID-19 restrictions)

Download our Atrial Fibrillation Factsheet:

Read our AF Inquiry Reports:

Still Caring through COVID

We’re still providing support to people with AF during the COVID-19 pandemic and, with almost 90% of our funding donated by the public, we need your help, so we can keep ‘Caring through COVID’. Thousands of people in Northern Ireland access our services every week and we’re determined to continue providing essential information and support about risk factors linked to chest, heart and stroke conditions and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

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