Nonvalvular atrial fibrillation: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

Nonvalvular atrial fibrillationThere are a number of different factors that contribute to nonvalvular atrial fibrillation. Quick treatment of nonvalvular atrial fibrillation is important because it can prevent a stroke from occurring. Here we will look at the causes and treatment options.

Just what is nonvalvular atrial fibrillation? To understand the condition, you need to understand the heart. Atrial refers to the atria, which are the top two chambers of the heart. Fibrillation is the quick and irregular tightening of muscle fibers, and the word valvular is a term used to describe the heart valves that allow blood in and out of the heart. So when there are irregularities in the heart valves, irregular heart rhythms can occur. But when an irregular heart rhythm in the upper chambers of the heart is not due to a fault with the heart valves, it is called nonvalvular atrial fibrillation.


When someone has nonvalvular A-fib, it can lead to problems such as blood pooling in parts of the heart. This means that there is less blood available to pump to the rest of the body. When a blot clot forms in the pooled blood, it has the potential to reach the brain and lead to a stroke.

Prevalence of nonvalvular atrial fibrillation

Nonvalvular atrial fibrillation prevalence in the United States continues to be investigated; however, it is believed that today about 2.3 million Americans have it. That number is expected to increase to 5.6 million by 2050. A paper published by the National Institutes of Health stipulates that this could be a low estimate since data in one city (Rochester, Minnesota) showed an almost threefold increase in nonvalvular A-fib over the last three decades. There could be many factors for the increase, including socioeconomic implications as well as an association with conditions such as obesity, inflammation, and plaque build-up in arteries.

If untreated, nonvalvular atrial fibrillation doubles the risk of death from heart-related conditions. Some research suggests that you are five times more likely to have a stroke if you suffer from nonvalvular A-fib.

Causes, risk factors, and symptoms of nonvalvular atrial fibrillation

As mentioned, there are many different causes of nonvalvular atrial fibrillation, but there are also various risk
factors to consider. Valvular causes might include having a prosthetic heart valve or a condition that is called mitral valve stenosis. However, more research is needed to really be able to include these diseases in the nonvalvular atrial fibrillation definition. For those who don’t know, mitral valve stenosis is when the mitral valve, located on the left side of the heart, develops a narrow opening, preventing enough blood from flowing through.

Here’s a list of other causes of nonvalvular atrial fibrillation:

Risk factors for nonvalvular A-fib include chronic high blood pressure, a history of heart disease, a history of lung disease, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, alcoholism, and high-dose steroid therapy.

The following are common nonvalvular atrial fibrillation symptoms:

  • Fluttering or rapid heartbeat
  • Thumping in chest along with irregular pulse
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness

There are some people with A-fib who do not experience any symptoms. Anyone who is experiencing chest pains should seek immediate medical attention since they could be having a heart attack.

How to diagnose and treat nonvalvular atrial fibrillation

A nonvalvular atrial fibrillation diagnosis can’t be made until a physical examination is conducted and full medical history is discussed. Various tests may also be performed. For example, an electrocardiogram can be conducted. It shows how fast or slow the heart is beating, detects any irregular heart rhythm, and tells the doctor how strong the electrical signals are passing through the heart. Sometimes, a Holter monitor is used. This is a recording device with several electrodes placed on the chest that records heart activity. The monitor can be worn for 24 to 48 hours.

Below is a list of other possible tests:

  • Echocardiogram
  • Stress test
  • Chest X-ray
  • Blood tests

Nonvalvular atrial fibrillation treatment can include medication or different procedures. The exact approach will depend on the severity of symptoms as well as whether or not the patient already has heart disease.

In most cases, A-fib sufferers will be prescribed an anticoagulant medication. This type of medication can prevent the clotting of blood. Most people simply refer to them as “blood thinners.” People diagnosed with nonvalvular atrial fibrillation can experience quivering, which prevents blood from moving through the heart’s chambers, and when blood sits still for too long, that’s when a clot can form.

Clots can cause blockages and lead to heart attack or stroke. There are various types of anticoagulants. Some block vitamin K because the body needs vitamin K to create a blood clot. Taking this type of medication requires regular doctor’s visits to ensure it is working properly.

Other medications may be prescribed to help keep the heart in rhythm. Again, there are various types that the doctor can choose from.

The following list covers the most widely used nonvalvular atrial treatments:

  • Medications
  • Cardioversion: An electrical current delivered to the heart to restore normal rhythm.
  • Ablation: Scarring parts of the heart that are sending irregular electrical signals. This helps get the heart back to a healthy rhythm.
  • Lifestyle adjustments: Following a heart-healthy diet, limiting salt, limiting alcohol, and reducing stress.
  • Surgery: This could include, electrical cardioversion (shocks to the heart), catheter ablation (radio waves to destroy unhealthy tissue disrupting electrical signals), maze heart surgery (creating scar tissue to impact electrical signals and restore normal heartbeat), or a pacemaker.

Valvular vs. nonvalvular atrial fibrillation

While we have explained nonvalvular atrial fibrillation, it is important to understand valvular vs. nonvalvular atrial fibrillation. Although these conditions are both A-fib, they are caused by different factors.

Valvular atrial fibrillation is when someone has a heart valve disorder. It can also be seen in those who have a prosthetic heart valve. Nonvalvular refers to A-fib that is caused by other factors, including high blood pressure or high stress. There is still a lot of research into the causes on valvular A-fib.


As you may have guessed, valvular and nonvalvular atrial fibrillation are treated differently.
When left untreated, nonvalvular atrial fibrillation can be serious. If you are diagnosed with nonvalvular A-fib, remember that there are a range of treatment options to bring your heart back into a healthy rhythm. Seeking medical guidance as soon as possible should help you avoid any complications and allow you to live a productive life.

Exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, as well as following doctors instructions can help you manage A-fib and lower the risk of developing heart disease.

Related: Atrial fibrillation, irregular heartbeat risk higher with poor sleep in elderly


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