The irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation, or AFib, can increase the risk of stroke up to five times if left untreated. About 140,000 Americans die from stroke annually, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 795,000 strokes occur each year and stroke is the fifth likely cause of death, with heart attacks ranking first. The impact of AFib is significant among stroke victims. Twenty percent of those who have strokes also have atrial fibrillation.
What is AFib?
The upper chambers of the heart are called the atria. A healthy heart beats with a regular rhythm but when AFib occurs, the heartbeat fibrillates (quivers) and does not move blood properly from the atria to the heart’s lower chambers, called ventricles. The heartbeats in the upper and lower chambers are out of sync. The ventricles don’t move blood evenly to the arteries. Blood can gather in the heart and clots may result. They can enter an artery leading to the brain, causing a stroke. The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that 2.7 million people in the U.S. have atrial fibrillation each year and many don’t know they have it.
The reason people may not realize they have atrial fibrillation is that there are sometimes no symptoms. In other cases, symptoms are often thought to be either not serious or the result of activity or another physical condition. These include dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath or perspiring. Weakness and lightheadedness and are also AFib symptoms. More obvious signs are rapid heartbeat, irregular heartbeat, the feeling of thumping or fluttering in the chest and actual chest pain. Chest pain could signal a heart attack and should be attended to immediately, as should fluttering and palpitations.
High blood pressure (hypertension), also a major cause of stroke, exacerbates the chances that AFib will occur. The combination of high blood pressure and AFib is especially dangerous.
Types of AFib
There are several types of atrial fibrillation. Paroxysmal fibrillation occurs when the heart returns to normal heart rate within seven days, either by itself or with treatment, while persistent AFib lasts longer than a week. Long-standing AFib lasts longer than a year and permanent AFib is an indefinite condition.
Managing AFib can help prevent a stroke. Controlling the heart rate is the key mission in treatment. This can be done in several ways. Blood thinners, such as aspirin, heparin or warfarin can be prescribed. The goal of these blood thinners is to help lower coagulation and clotting and to keep blood flowing smoothly.
Some medicines also help stabilize the heart rate. Others help with the heart rhythm, which becomes erratic due to AFib.
There are also non-surgical procedures available to treat AFib. Electrical cardioversion involves electric shocks while the patient is under anesthesia. The shocks restore the natural heartbeat. Catheter ablation involves manipulating a thin tube to the source of the irregular heartbeat and sending electrical signals to destroy certain cells. The result is that the heart will return to its normal rhythm.
Other options that do involve surgery are available, as well. Surgical ablation may be decided upon by a cardiologist as the best way to solve AFib, sometimes while treating another condition.
As with other cardiovascular conditions, a heart-healthy diet and exercise are effective in preventing AFib. Additionally, cutting out smoking, making sure weight is at a healthy level and watching alcohol and caffeine consumption also help. Stress and anger can cause irregular heartbeats in some people. Managing them also helps curb AFib. It is also wise to use over the counter medicines with caution. Some of them can cause rapid heart rates.
Among the most important preventative measures are taking prescribed medicine and scheduling regular checkups. Because symptoms are often undetected by those with AFib, physical examinations are critical. If a patient has already been diagnosed with another cardiovascular issue, the cardiologist should be apprised immediately of any change in health.
To learn more about the impact of atrial fibrillation on cardiovascular health and treatment, log on to vascularhealthclinics.org.