NANETTE KASS WENGER, MD: Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm. It simply means that your heart is beating irregularly, and sometimes fast. Sometimes atrial fibrillation is very well tolerated. And some patients, particularly when the rate of this rhythm abnormality is slow, have no symptoms. Many patients who have atrial fibrillation have palpitations, an uncomfortable sensation of their heart beating, and in some patients it adversely affects the function of the heart.
DOUGLAS P. ZIPES, MD: At the other end, the arrhythmia can be severe enough as to cause sudden death. That's what we call ventricular fibrillation. That means that the bottom chamber, the ventricles, fibrillate. They beat at a rate of 400 to 600 times a minute, and if you look at that it looks like a bag of squiggly worms. Without any contraction to force the blood to the brain, you lose consciousness, and if it's not stopped within three to five minutes you die.
Some arrhythmias definitely should be treated. Others should be ignored, and you get along with your life and forget about them. For the latter, it would be the occasional extra heartbeat that causes the palpitation, and shrug it off and just keep on chugging.