Atrial Fibrillation: Here’s What To Know

Most people with COPD will not develop Atrial Fibrillation. However, COPD may increase your risk of developing it. So, what’s the deal? Here’s what to know.

What is a normal heartbeat?

Your heart has four chambers. The right atria, left atria, right ventricle, and left ventricle. Your right atria receives deoxygenated venous blood from your body. Your left atria receives freshly oxygenated blood from your lungs.  Both atria fill with blood while heart muscle is in a relaxed state.

  • Sinoatrial (SA) Node. It’s your normal pacemaker. It’s in the right atria. It’s also called the SA Node. This creates an electrical signal that causes both atria to contract. This causes blood from the right atria to enter the right ventricle, and blood from the left atria to enter the left ventricle. The electrical signal then travels to the ventricles. This causes the ventricles to contract. The right ventricle sends deoxygenated blood to your lungs. The left ventricle sends freshly oxygenated blood to all the cells of your body.
  • Normal Sinus Rhythm (NSR). This is what it’s called when your normal pacemaker is at work. This is normal. Each beat is normal and orderly. Your heartbeats are equally paced apart. Your heart beat is regular. Your heart rate will be between 60 and 100.

What is Atrial Fibrillation?

It’s an abnormal heart rhythm. The medical term for abnormal heart rhythm is an arrhythmia. Another way doctors may refer to it is A-Fib. It’s when heart muscle in the atria quiver. Various, random areas of the heart muscle become irritated. Each electrical impulse comes from a different area of your atria. So, there will be no coordination between contractions.  It causes your heart to beat to be irregular.1-2

What does Atrial Fibrillation feel like?

Some people say they don’t notice it at all. Some say it’s a funny feeling in their chest. Others say it feels as though their heart is racing. Some say it feels like their heart is skipping around. So, every person experiences it differently. It’s a treatable rhythm when recognized and diagnosed early. But, it can also become chronic and, therefore, a normal rhythm for some people.1

What causes Atrial Fibrillation?

Various medical conditions can cause A-fib. This includes chronic lung diseases like COPD. A-fib can develop at any stage of COPD. However, the risk increases as the disease progress. Researchers are not sure why, or even if, COPD causes A-fib. But, they have developed some theories.3

  • Oxidative Stress. This is stress to airway cells caused by inhaling harmful substances, such as chemicals in cigarette smoke.
  • Systemic Inflammation. Immune cells release chemicals that cause inflammation. These chemicals may enter your blood system. They may enter your heart, causing changes there.
  • Hypoxia. This is low oxygen levels. Blood vessels in your lungs respond by constricting. This causes your heart to work harder to pump blood through them.
  • Elevated Carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is a waste product of cellular respiration. It travels through your blood to your lungs and is exhaled. As COPD progresses CO2 levels may rise. So, this may somehow contribute to A-fib.
  • Low potassium. This may be due to drugs used to treat COPD. But, some speculate it may contribute to A-fib.
  • COPD comorbidities. There are various other diseases that occur with COPD, such as diabetes and heart disease. The risk of these occurring with COPD increases as COPD progresses. So, these may also somehow increase your risk for A-fib.

So, all of these may cause changes to your body. These changes may lead to changes in your heart. These changes may increase your risk of developing A-fib. Plus there are other theories that have been postulated that will not be discussed here.3

Always talk to your doctor

Some heartbeats may not effectively pump blood, thereby causing it to clot. These clots can travel through your blood causing strokes. So, this means it is a serious medical condition. But, it’s treatable when properly diagnosed. Learning how best to prevent and treat A-fib begins with a discussion with your COPD doctor.

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