What causes an irregular and rapid heartbeat?

Written by: Dr Mark Gallagher
Published: | Updated: 27/11/2020
Edited by: Laura Burgess

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and if left untreated can lead to stroke. In some cases, you may feel like your heart is fluttering (palpitations) and experience chest pain and fatigue. In this article, one of our expert cardiologists Dr Mark Gallagher explains just how common the condition is and how it can be managed.



What are the main symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

Most patients feel fatigued and less able to exercise when in this arrhythmia, often short of breath at a level of exercise that would not cause them any distress when in a normal rhythm. Some feel palpitations, an awareness of an abnormality of the heart rhythm.

How common is atrial fibrillation?

It is a common arrhythmia, particularly in older people. It is present in 14% of those aged over 80 years, but only 0.1% under 50 years.

How dangerous is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation causes an increased risk of stroke, but this can be virtually eliminated by the use of anticoagulant medications.

Can atrial fibrillation be caused by anxiety?

No, anxiety does not cause heart rhythm disturbances.

What are the main causes of atrial fibrillation?

Most patients with atrial fibrillation have no identifiable cause for it. In a minority, it occurs due to high blood pressure, obesity or excessive alcohol consumption.

Can atrial fibrillation be cured?

Yes, a majority of patients experience long-term cure after a single ablation procedure, though some require more than one procedure to achieve this. In some cases, atrial fibrillation can be controlled using medications.

Dr Gallagher is an expert consultant cardiologist based in London and Chertsey. His specialties include atrial fibrillation ablation, arrhythmia, cardiovascular disease and cardiac arrest.

You can book an appointment with him via his Top Doctor’s profile here. Can’t make the appointment in person? Dr Gallagher is available for a video call using our e-Consultation tool, which is also found on his profile.

By Dr Mark Gallagher

Dr Mark Gallagher is a leading London cardiologist who sees patients at Spire St Anthony's Hospital, BMI The Runnymede Hospital and St George's Hospital NHS Trust, London. He has been the Clinical Lead in electrophysiology at St George's for over ten years and is consistently the busiest electrophysiologist in the region, performing 450-500 procedures yearly. Dr Gallagher's field of particular interest is ablation for atrial fibrillation and other complex atrial arrhythmias.

Dr Gallagher attended medical school and completed basic medical training and initial training in cardiology in Ireland. He later moved to St George's Hospital, London in 1996 to pursue subspecialist training in cardiac electrophysiology and pacing.

Dr Gallagher was a research fellow and later became a registrar and senior registrar at St George's between 1996 and 2002. At the beginning of 2003, Dr Gallagher moved to Rome, Italy where he started an interventional EP unit in the new university hospital "Policlinico Tor Vergata".

Dr Gallagher transferred from Rome to Cardiff in 2007 before returning the following year to St George's Hospital. 

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