What are the complications of atrial fibrillation?
An increased risk of having a stroke (or other blood clot problem)
The main complication of atrial fibrillation (AF) is an increased risk of having a stroke. AF causes turbulent blood flow in the heart chambers. This sometimes leads to a small blood clot forming in a heart chamber.
A clot can travel through the blood vessels until it becomes stuck in a smaller blood vessel in the brain (or sometimes in another part of the body). Part of the blood supply to the brain may then be cut off, which causes a stroke.
The individual risk of developing a blood clot and having a stroke depends on various factors. The level of risk can be calculated by your doctor using a set of specific questions. This will help to decide what treatments are required. All people except those at the lowest risk will be offered medication to help prevent clots from forming.
Read more about preventing stroke when you have atrial fibrillation.
Less common complications of AF include the following:
- Heart failure - this develops in some cases. See separate leaflet called Heart Failure for more details.
- Weakness of the heart muscle (dilated cardiomyopathy). The reason why cardiomyopathy develops in some people with AF is not clear. See separate leaflet called Dilated Cardiomyopathy for more details.
- If you already have chest pains (angina), the chest pains may become worse if you have AF.
AF can also reduce the amount of exercise you're able to do. It has also been shown that AF can affect some brain functions like memory, attention and reasoning. AF can therefore have a big effect on your quality of life.
Did you find this information useful?
- Management of atrial fibrillation; NICE Clinical Guideline (June 2014)
- 2016 ESC Guidelines for the management of atrial fibrillation developed in collaboration with EACTS; European Society of Cardiology (2016)
- Atrial Fibrillation; NICE CKS, October 2015 (UK access only)
- WatchBP Home A for opportunistically detecting atrial fibrillation during diagnosis and monitoring of hypertension; NICE Medical Technologies Guidance, January 2013
- Thoracoscopic exclusion of the left atrial appendage in atrial fibrillation (with or without other cardiac surgery) for the prevention of thromboembolism, NICE Interventional Procedure Guideline (June 2011)
- Isaew A, Adderley NJ, Ryan R, et al; The treatment of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation in UK primary care. Heart. 2017 Jun 1. pii: heartjnl-2016-310927. doi: 10.1136/heartjnl-2016-310927.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.