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About Atrial Fibrillation

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Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke Risk

Atrial fibrillation, also called AFib or AF, is a common kind of irregular heartbeat. Learn about types of AFib, symptoms and risks, and treatment for AFib, below.

Non-Valvular Atrial Fibrillation vs Valvular Atrial Fibrillation

There are two main types of atrial fibrillation: valvular and non-valvular. Valvular AFib refers to atrial fibrillation that is caused by a heart valve problem. Examples of a heart valve problem include a narrow or leaking valve, or a valve repair or replacement.1,2

Non-valvular AFib (sometimes called NVAF) refers to atrial fibrillation that is not caused by a heart valve problem. Non-valvular atrial fibrillation is the most common type of AFib.1,2

While treatment options may be different for non-valvular and valvular atrial fibrillation, the effects of the disease are often the same.1,2 To better understand these effects, it’s helpful to know a little about how your heart works.

WATCHMAN and Non‑Valvular AFib

WATCHMAN is for people with non-valvular atrial fibrillation who need an alternative to warfarin, a common blood thinner, to reduce their stroke risk.

heart diagram

How Does Atrial Fibrillation Affect the Heart?

Your heart is divided into four chambers. The two small upper chambers are called the right and left atria. The two larger lower chambers are called the right and left ventricles. With each beat of your heart, blood is pumped to and from the other parts of your body.3,4

The pumping is controlled by your heart’s electrical system. Normally, the electrical signal that tells your heart to beat comes from the sinoatrial node, or SA node, in the right atrium. It keeps your heart beating in a regular rhythm: a rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute, in the average adult at rest.3

But during atrial fibrillation, electrical signals come from several areas in the atria. These disorganized signals cause the atria to quiver rapidly and irregularly. AFib keeps the atria and ventricles from working together properly.3

Atrial Fibrillation Prevalence

According to the American Heart Association, more than 2.7 million people in the United States are known to have atrial fibrillation. But because people can have AFib without obvious symptoms, the condition can go undiagnosed. The actual number of Americans with AFib could be as high as 6.1 million. And numbers are expected to double by 2050.5

This is because the risk of AFib increases with age, along with other health conditions that are risk factors for AFib, like high blood pressure and heart disease. With the population getting bigger and people living longer, AFib is a growing concern in the U.S.5

Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation: Electrocardiogram (ECG)

If you have symptoms of atrial fibrillation, your doctor may order an electrocardiogram (ECG, sometimes called an EKG). An electrocardiogram records the electrical activity of your heart through sensors placed against the skin.3

A reliable way to diagnose AFib is to record an electrocardiogram during an episode of atrial fibrillation. But AFib episodes can be unpredictable, so an ECG recorded at your doctor’s office may appear to be normal.4

If this happens, your doctor may ask you to wear a portable ECG monitor to record your heart’s electrical signals over a period of time. Your doctor will then analyze the monitor recordings to determine if you have atrial fibrillation.3,4

Health Risks of Atrial Fibrillation

People with untreated atrial fibrillation may be at greater risk for stroke than people with normal heart rhythms. Because blood does not flow through the atria regularly, blood clots may form in the heart. If a blood clot escapes from the heart, it can travel through the bloodstream to the brain and cause a stroke.3

Untreated AFib may lead to other problems besides stroke. Talk to your doctor about the different risks that AFib may pose to your health.

brain illustration

A blood clot that travels to the brain can cause a stroke

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Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms

People with AFib may experience one or more of the following symptoms3:

  • Heart palpitations (a sudden pounding, fluttering, or racing feeling in the chest)
  • Lack of energy, feeling tired
  • Dizziness, or a feeling of faintness or light-headedness
  • Chest discomfort (pain, pressure, or tightness in the chest)
  • Shortness of breath

Atrial Fibrillation Treatment

There are a number of different treatment options for atrial fibrillation. Your doctor will help you choose an AFib treatment plan based on your heart’s rhythm, your symptoms, and any other medical conditions you may have. The goals of treatment for atrial fibrillation may include restoring a normal heart rhythm, controlling your heart rate, and/or reducing your stroke risk.3

To reduce your risk of stroke, your doctor may prescribe blood-thinning medications that can reduce the formation of blood clots. However, there are reasons that some people do not take blood thinners long term.6 For these people, the WATCHMAN Implant may be an option. 

Every person with atrial fibrillation has different needs. If you’ve been diagnosed with AFib, talk to your doctor about the AFib treatment options available to you. Your doctor will help you understand the risks and benefits associated with each option. Together you can choose the treatment that is right for you.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, or if you’ve had symptoms of AFib, here are some questions to ask your cardiologist:

  • What is the cause of my atrial fibrillation?
  • What kinds of tests will I need?
  • Can a procedure restore my heart rhythm?
  • Should I take medicine to control my heart rate?
  • What treatment options can reduce my stroke risk?
  • What are the risks and benefits of these treatment options?
  • What is the long-term effect of AFib on my heart? 

If you’re already being treated for AFib and you need an alternative to blood thinners, find out if WATCHMAN could be right for you. 

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The average person with AFib is 5 times more likely to suffer a stroke than someone with a regular heartbeat.6 Learn more about the AFib-stroke connection.

NEXT: Alternative to Warfarin

WATCHMAN is for people with atrial fibrillation not caused by a heart valve problem who need an alternative to warfarin. This website is intended to provide patients and caregivers with some information about the WATCHMAN Implant. It may help prepare you for talking to your doctor about your options for reducing stroke risk.

Important Safety Information

The WATCHMAN Device is a permanent implant designed to close the left atrial appendage in the heart in an effort to reduce the risk of stroke.

With all medical procedures there are risks associated with the implant procedure and the use of the device. The risks include but are not limited to accidental heart puncture, air embolism, allergic reaction, anemia, anesthesia risks, arrhythmias, AV (Arteriovenous) fistula, bleeding or throat pain from the TEE (Trans Esophageal Echo) probe, blood clot or air bubbles in the lungs or other organs, bruising at the catheter insertion site, clot formation on the WATCHMAN™ Closure Device, cranial bleed, excessive bleeding, gastrointestinal bleeding, groin puncture bleed, hypotension, infection/pneumonia, pneumothorax, pulmonary edema, pulmonary vein obstruction, renal failure, stroke, thrombosis and transient ischemic attack. In rare cases death can occur.

Be sure to talk with your doctor so that you thoroughly understand all of the risks and benefits associated with the implantation of the WATCHMAN Device. 


  1. Fauchier L, Philippart R, Clementy N, et al. How to define valvular atrial fibrillation? Arch Cardiovasc Dis.2015;108:530-539.
  2. Molteni M, Polo Friz H, Primitz L, et al. The definition of valvular and non-valvular atrial fibrillation: results of a physicians’ survey.Europace. 2014;16:1720-1725.
  3. Cleveland Clinic. Atrial fibrillation (Afib). Published May 2015. Accessed August 25, 2016.
  4. Harvard Health Publications. Atrial fibrillation. Harvard University Medical School. Published November 2011. Accessed August 25, 2016.
  5. American Heart Association website. Published 2017.Accessed June 1, 2017.
  6. National Stroke Association. Making the Afib-Stroke Connection. Published 2012.Accessed September 1, 2016