By Jaime Benrey, M.D., Cardiologist
Atrial fibrillation, also called AFib or AF, affects almost three million Americans. AFib is a quivering or irregular heartbeat called arrhythmia that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
Basically, the heart has its own electrical system. This system makes the signals that start each heartbeat. The heartbeat begins in one of the two upper chambers of the heart, called the atria. With AFib, cells in the atria send extra electrical signals. These extra signals make the atria beat very fast and unevenly so that the atria may quiver instead of contracting.
Problems occur if the atria do not contract because then enough blood is not moved into the two lower chambers of the heart. This can cause you to feel dizzy or weak. Blood that doesn’t keep moving can pool and form clots in the atria and then these clots can move into other parts of the body and cause serious problems, such as a stroke.
Some of the causes of AFib can include having a previous heart attack, high blood pressure and thyroid problems. However, in many cases, the cause of AFib is unknown. Some of the symptoms of AFib are palpitations, feeling weak or tired, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, dizziness and fainting spells.
According to the American Heart Association, AFib is the most common serious heart rhythm abnormality in people over the age of 65 years. Even though untreated atrial fibrillation doubles the risk of heart-related deaths and causes a four- to five-fold increased risk for stroke, many patients are unaware that AFib is a serious condition.
Treatment and prevention
Recommended treatment for atrial fibrillation depends on your age, symptoms, how long you have had the condition, among other factors. You will have a complete evaluation to find out if you have any abnormalities that caused your heart to go into AFib. This might be blocked heart arteries or a thyroid problem. Your doctor will assess your particular case and discuss treatment choices with you that may include:
- Treating an underlying disorder that puts you at risk for AFib, like correcting an abnormal thyroid or electrolyte problem, or treating a blocked heart artery
- Restoring a normal heart rhythm with an electrical shock (cardioversion) or with an antiarrhythmic medicine
- Using medicine to control your heart rate
- Preventing the risk for blood clot and stroke with blood-thinning medicines
- Doing catheter ablation or a surgical maze procedure. These use different methods to destroy certain areas of heart tissue and to interrupt the electrical signals causing AFib. One of these procedures may be a choice when medicines do not work, or as an alternative to long-term medicine.
Managing risk factors for stroke and preventing heart failure are important parts of any treatment plan for AFib.
Avoiding AFib and subsequently lowering your stroke risk can be as simple as foregoing your morning cup of coffee. In other words, some AFib cases are only as strong as their underlying cause. If hyperthyroidism is the cause of AFib, treating the thyroid condition may be enough to make AFib go away.
See a doctor if you suspect you have AFib. Advanced diagnostic tools and treatments, like those found at St. Joseph Medical Center’s Cardiology department, can help determine the right plan for you. Treatment for AFib, early detection of heart disease and adopting heart healthy habits can lead to a longer, healthier, more active life.
Dr. Jaime Benrey is a cardiologist affiliated with St. Joseph Medical Center.