Diagnosis Methods for Atrial Fibrillation

· March 2, 2019
Atrial fibrillation is one of the most frequent types of arrhythmia. Given that due to its high prevalence, it's important to know how to diagnose it.

The diagnosis of atrial fibrillation is conducted primarily through an electrocardiogram. Medical centers must perform very precise studies because there are many types of known arrhythmias.

A proper and early diagnosis will allow a patient to cope with the disease better by making changes in their living and eating habits as well as establishing a treatment as soon as possible.

Keep reading this article if you want to know about the possible causes and diagnosis methods for this disease.

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial Fibrillation

This is a medical term that refers to a disorder of the heart. During atrial fibrillation, the natural electrical signals are altered. In general, these nerve impulses that control the contraction and relaxation of the heart. According to the specialized portal Medline Plus, the consequences are the following:

“Atrial fibrillation may lead to an increased risk of stroke. In many patients, it can also cause chest pain, heart attacks or heart failure”.

What happens is that the atria (the upper chambers of the heart) contracts in an irregular and uncoordinated manner with the ventricles (lower chambers of this body).

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Types of Atrial Fibrillation and Risk Groups

Normally, this disorder often appears in people that are over the age of 65. However, there are clinical cases in different age groups. On the other hand, due to unknown causes, it’s more common in men than in women.

Likewise, it’s possible to differentiate between two types of atrial fibrillation according to their characteristics:

  • Chronic. In this case, the atrial fibrillation has been around for some time and therapy is required to relieve symptoms.
  • Paroxysmal. This alteration casually appears and the associated symptoms correct themselves on their own.

In any case, this disorder can have serious consequences. Among the most common risks, there are cerebral infarction and cardiac arrhythmia, or heart rhythm disturbance.

What are the Possible Causes of Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial Fibrillation detecting atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation may appear or be triggered by multiple delayed causes.

Currently, research hasn’t been able to identify the exact cause or trigger of this disorder. However, there are a number of medical conditions and risks that can lead to atrial fibrillation.

Among them there are heart disease or diseases that affect the heart. For example:

  • Pericarditis or inflammation of the pericardium (the thin layer that surrounds and protects this organ)
  • Myocarditis or inflammation of the myocardium (heart muscle)
  • Myocardial Infarction
  • Valvular heart disease or alterations of the valves inside the heart
  • Damage suffered during a surgical operation of the heart
  • Smoking and consumption of alcohol and/or drugs
  • Medicines that can cause heart damage
  • Respiratory system diseases such as COPD
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Other disorders such as sleep apnea

How Doctors Diagnosis Atrial Fibrillation

Stethoscope used for atrial fibrillation

The diagnosis of atrial fibrillation allows you to rule out other possible arrhythmias and other possible causes.

The medical team will perform a series of medical tests to diagnose atrial fibrillation. This way, they will be able to rule out other disorders with similar characteristics.

The most common diagnostic methods are:

Electrocardiogram, or ECG

Doctors conduct this test by placing a few devices called electrodes on the chest and arms of the patient. These devices are designed to capture the electrical signals that control the movements of the heart. Then, a graphical representation of these nerve impulses appears.

It’s one of the main diagnostic tests for atrial fibrillation. It can also be found in the form of:

  • Holter Monitor. This is a portable ECG in which the patient records their heart’s activity for 24 hours or more.
  • Episode recorder. In this case, the patient activates the appliance when they have symptoms of tachycardia. That way a patient can easily get a study of the alteration timing. Unlike the Holter monitor, the study is conducted in a period of several weeks or even months.

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Echocardiogram

Specialists project a set of waves through a device called a transducer toward the patient’s chest. The waves reach the heart and bounce off in order to escape the chest cavity. Later, after computer processing, a live image of the patient’s heart will appear.

This procedure is called a transthoracic echocardiogram. However, doctors can also insert it through the patient’s mouth by using a transducer that’s subject to a flexible tube. Once it reaches the esophagus, the test is done and more precise details are obtained.

This way, specialists can check the structure of the organ and see if there are any clots. This is a conclusive test for the diagnosis of atrial fibrillation.

Other Methods

  • Obtaining inner images. As a general rule, a chest x-ray can check the state of the lungs and heart.
  • Stress test or exercise. A patient performs a brief physical activity while a team of specialists reviews the response of the heart.
  • Routine tests. Usually, doctors request a blood test in order to rule out any underlying disease. They may do this in the case of hyperthyroidism (high levels of thyroid hormones in the blood), for example. You can also perform other tests to see if the patient has a respiratory disturbance (normally, the COPD).

Chasco Ronda, J. (2010). El ecocardiograma. Imagen Diagnostica. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2171-3669(10)70004-4

Extramiana, F., Messali, A., Labbé, J.-P., & Leenhardt, A. (2013). Fibrilación auricular. EMC – Tratado de Medicina. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1636-5410(13)65325-8

Kirchhof, P., Benussi, S., Kotecha, D., Ahlsson, A., Atar, D., Casadei, B., … Zeppenfeld, K. (2017). Guía ESC 2016 sobre el diagnóstico y tratamiento de la fibrilación auricular, desarrollada en colaboración con la EACTS. Revista Espanola de Cardiologia. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.recesp.2016.11.014

Pozas G. (2008). El electrocardiograma y su tecnología. Educación Medica. https://doi.org/Doi 10.1098/Rspb.2003.2365