What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Blood pressure monitor

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is a cardiac condition that affects millions of people worldwide.

Characterized by a rapid, irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia, it can potentially lead to other serious conditions and also increase the risk of stroke in patients who have AF.

It is estimated that there are currently some 4.5 million confirmed cases of AF in the European Union and more than 2.3 million people with AF in the United States.

However, experts expect that to rise significantly to six million in the US by 2050 and around 18 million in Europe by 2060.

Despite the health risks associated with what is the most common supraventricular arrhythmia, AF remains difficult to detect because it can be intermittent.

Early detection

Common causes of AF are hypertension, cardiomyopathy, ischemia, and rheumatic heart disease and symptoms can include tiredness, shortness of breath, feeling faint, or chest pain.

If undetected and untreated, it can lead to complications such as heart failure and tachycardia-induced cardiomyopathy, and critical cardiac ischaemia, and increased stroke risk, but early detection can lead to improved management of the condition.

The traditional method of diagnosis of AF is checking the pulse, but longer-term continuous monitoring through smart devices is also proving increasingly effective at diagnosing the condition in patients.

From there, treatment for the arrhythmia can include a rate-control treatment (beta-blocker, rate-limiting calcium channel blocker, or digoxin).

Minimal symptoms

The condition often proves difficult to diagnose because patients with AF may experience minimal, intermittent, or no symptoms at all.

In the UK, for example, where around three per cent of the population are believed to have AF, the British Heart Foundation suggests that as many as 300,000 people are living with undiagnosed AF.

During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, attendance at health facilities fell as patients with existing conditions were forced to shield at home, isolate, or were simply concerned about visiting a hospital and contracting COVID-19.

This has further fuelled concerns about an increasing number of undiagnosed AF patients.

Remote monitoring

The restrictions and fears that arose during the pandemic had the effect of triggering greater use of telemedicine and remote patient monitoring devices for a range of chronic conditions.

Increased use of wearables not only enabled wider and more consistent monitoring of patients’ vital signs, such as pulse and body temperature, as well as activity, but these devices also acquired data over a longer period of time.

This has helped significantly in the detection of AF.

In turn, Artificial Intelligence algorithms have been developed to assess the vast amount of data collected from devices and this information is proving invaluable in supporting doctors in making a more informed diagnosis of conditions, and in particular AF.

Tracking Atrial Fibrillation

More advanced modes of remote monitoring devices are constantly being developed and some are having particular and relevant applications for the medical field.

For example, the CART-I ring cardio tracker from Sky Labs is on that is able to help in the detection of AF.

As the world’s first ring-type smart wearable heart rhythm monitoring medical device, it provides photoplethysmography (PPG) signals to measure heart rate from screening the bloodstream 24/7 through the user’s finger to measure irregular pulse waves.

These are then transmitted to a cloud platform where AI technology can help detect and analyse AF. It also uses electrocardiogram (ECG) signals to provide additional information to the user’s doctor, often without user intervention.