Atrial Fibrillation: What You Need
To Know About The Most Common
Heart Rhythm Disorder
September is National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month. Know the symptoms to reduce your risk of stroke.
September is National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month. If you’re like most Americans, you have no idea what atrial fibrillation is or how to identify it. A 2014 survey showed that fewer than 20% of people could, “correctly identify medical conditions such as sleep apnea and diabetes as risk factors for atrial fibrillation.” The average person with atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is 5 times more likely to suffer a stroke than someone with a regular heartbeat. This month, Capital Cardiology Associates strives to educate the Capital Region on the most common type of heartbeat abnormality that affects more than 3 million people in the United States: atrial fibrillation.
What is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)
“Atrial fibrillation is the most common abnormality that we experience in cardiology,” says Dr. Lance Sullenberger, board certified cardiologist at Capital Cardiology Associates. The American College of Cardiology describes AFib as, “the most common heart rhythm disorder (arrhythmia).” AFib is an irregular heartbeat that breaks down into two main types:
• 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.
• 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.
While treatment options may be different for non-valvular and valvular atrial fibrillation, the effects of the disease are often the same. AFib sets off a chain reaction: your heart isn’t beating normally which causes your blood to stop moving or flowing well, increasing your risk of heart failure. Because blood isn’t pumped out of the heart normally, it’s easier for blood cells to stick together and form clots which can increase the risk of heart failure, heart attack, or stroke if they travel to another part of your body and cut off blood supply to the brain.
AFib has several causes: heart disease, high blood pressure, heart defects from birth, sleep apnea, certain medicines, heavy alcohol or caffeine consumption, drug use and smoking. If you have a family history of heart disease, heart attack, or stroke you are at a greater risk of atrial fibrillation.
Dr. Sullenberger explains AFib as, “when the top chambers of the heart go electrically haywire. They are firing a bunch of electrical signals to the bottom chamber which controls the pulse. The bottom chambers then start beating irregularly.” To investigate your heart’s electrical activity, your doctor will order a series of cardiac tests. The first would be an electrocardiogram (ECG). “It is a simple ‘first step’ tool to help your doctor increase or decrease his or her suspicion that your symptom is or is not related to your heart,” says Sullenberger. During an ECG electrodes are placed on your chest, arms, and legs to detect the electrical waves your heart makes. It usually takes about five to ten minutes to complete the test.
AFib is a major health problem,
in that, it also makes blood clots
in the heart that can travel and
can cause a stroke or block flow
to other critical organs.
The most common symptom of AFib is an irregular heartbeat or palpitations. Dr. Sullenberger describes a thumping or racing heart, some patients experience fluttering or feeling like their heart is skipping a beat. Other common symptoms are shortness of breath, dizziness or light-headedness, and fatigue. If you experience these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately. “Every day I see patients who have heart palpitations,” notes Sullenberger. “What we are really trying to determine when we see a patient with palpitation is: do they have atrial fibrillation?”
The good news is that with proper treatment, you can live a full life with AFib. There are different treatment options that depend on your age, symptoms, and frequency of episodes, whether your heart rate is under control, your risk of stroke, other medical conditions (for example, if you already have heart disease). Your doctor will prescribe your treatment that will focus on lifestyle changes and therapies to prevent blood clots, heart failure, and stroke.
Lifestyle changes will
most likely include:
• If you smoke, quitting
• Getting regular physical
activity and exercise
• Eating a heart healthy diet
(like the Mediterranean Diet)
that is low in fat and salt
• Maintaining a healthy weight
with regular doctor check-ups
For some patients, implants could be an alternative to the lifelong use of blood thinners. Some people with atrial fibrillation who should take warfarin or another anticoagulant to reduce their stroke risk can’t due to their lifestyle or health history. Other AFib patients choose not to take anticoagulants, or blood thinners, due to side effects or for other reasons. Like warfarin, a common blood thinner, WATCHMAN can effectively reduce stroke risk. This permanent implant is for people with AFib not caused by a heart valve problem who need an alternative to warfarin, or a warfarin substitute.
September is National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month. If you have a family history of heart disease or have questions about your risk of heart disease, stroke, or heart attack — talk with your doctor. “The first person to talk with is your primary care physician,” points out Sullenberger. “Address what your concerns are. You are much better off finding things that can be changed before they become life-altering than having that problem develop into an emergency room visit or hospital stay that could have been prevented.”
Any medical information published on this website is not intended as a substitute for informed medical advice, and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional.