It seems you can’t pick up a magazine, newspaper or watch a TV show without being bombarded with ads about the risk of A-Fib. A-Fib, or atrial fibrillation, is an irregular heartbeat that puts you at a five times greater risk for stroke, as well as a greater risk of heart failure if left untreated, according to the American Heart Association.
Not everyone has symptoms with A-Fib. Some people may receive an Apple Watch alert that their heart rate is too fast or irregular. Those who do have symptoms report feeling short of breath, lightheaded, anxious, or have palpitations, or a racing or fluttering heart, for example. An electrocardiogram/EKG is used to identify this irregular rhythm.
The good news is that A-Fib is treatable, and you can still live an active and healthy life with this diagnosis.
A-Fib has four different classifications: Paroxysmal, persistent, longstanding persistent and permanent. Treatment depends on which type you have. Even if you are asymptomatic, you are still at risk for stroke. This is because blood can pool in the upper chambers of the heart, the atria, when in atrial fibrillation. Blood tends to pool in the left atrium in an area called the left atrial appendage. When blood pools, it wants to clot. When the heart beats, it can pump out a blood clot that can become lodged in the small arteries that supply blood to the brain, resulting in stroke.
Blood thinners are prescribed to reduce the blood’s ability to clot, thereby reducing the risk of stroke. Medicines to help slow the heart rate and to control the heart’s irregular rhythm may also be prescribed. It is important to take these medications as prescribed and to discuss any concerns with your physician before changing how you take them.
You may wonder how you got A-Fib in the first place. There are risk factors that predispose you to developing A-Fib. High blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea or heart disease for example. Certain lifestyle behaviors may also put you at risk for A-Fib, such as drinking alcohol in excess, smoking or prolonged athletic training. Common triggers are high amounts of caffeine consumption, excessive alcohol intake, stress and poor sleep.
For those individuals with long standing persistent or permanent A-Fib, whose quality of life and A-Fib have not improved with cardioversion or standard ablation, Lutheran Medical Center offers the Convergent Procedure. This two-part, same-day surgery is performed by a cardiovascular/thoracic surgeon and an interventional electrophysiologist. Using radio-frequency ablation produces heat and scarring of both the inside and outside of the atria in order to prevent the fibrillation from recurring.
As always, prevention is ideal. Get an annual checkup. Enjoy life in moderation.
Dr. Allan Brants is a cardiovascular/thoracic surgeon at Lutheran Medical Center.