By: Farhat Khairallah, MD, FACC, FHRS
The Heart Rhythm Society reports that atrial fibrillation (AFib) affects more than 2.5 million people in the United States, but many people do not even know they have it. This is alarming, because having AFib carries serious risks including stroke, congestive heart failure and death.
One of the most common heart rhythm disorders, AFib is a serious, but treatable condition characterized by a racing or fluttering heartbeat. The condition happens when the top chambers of the heart quiver too quickly, sometimes faster than 200 times per minute.
There are three types of AFib:
- Paroxysmal: Recurrent episodes that spontaneously stop in less than 7 days
- Persistent: Recurrent episodes that do not stop within 7 days. This requires treatment, or it will worsen into permanent AFib.
- Permanent: An ongoing episode lasting more than one year.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of atrial fibrillation are important when initiating the conversation with your doctor as to whether you may have an undiagnosed case of AFib. Some patients with AFib have no symptoms, but the majority complains of palpitations. Other symptoms include, but are not limited to, fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling, lightheadedness and, in rare instances, fainting.
Additionally, there are risk factors that can increase your chances of developing the condition.
- Age. As you get older, your risk for developing the condition increases.
- Heart disease. Having heart disease, valve problems, a heart attack or heart surgery increases your chances of developing AFib.
- High blood pressure. It’s important that you control high blood pressure with an active lifestyle or proper medications to decrease your chances of developing AFib.
- Other health conditions. The presence of conditions such as thyroid disease, diabetes, chronic lung disease, being overweight, obstructive sleep apnea and any serious illness or infection can increase your chances of developing AFib.
- Excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption can affect the rhythm of your heart and place you at risk for developing AFib.
- Family history. Unfortunately, even with proper exercise and diet, having a family history of AFib will place you at risk of developing the condition as well.
The good news is that, in most cases, AFib is treatable. Knowing the signs, symptoms and risk factors can help you and your physician diagnose the condition early, improving your chances of successful treatment.
There is a wide variety of treatments available, with the most advanced and minimally invasive options being offered only at hospitals with dedicated electrophysiology programs. Treatment options could include a cardioversion or ablation. A cardioversion is a procedure that restores normal rhythm through an external electrical shock, while an ablation uses either radio frequency or cold to create scar tissue on the areas of the heart causing the arrhythmia and blocks the electrical impulses of that area from traveling to the heart and causing AFib.
Treatment also may be needed to reduce the increased risk of stroke associated with AFib. Because the condition causes the heart to beat out of rhythm, blood clots can form that can then travel to the brain and cause stroke. To keep this from happening, a blood thinner will be prescribed. Advanced electrophysiology programs like the one at TMH offer additional options to reduce the risk of stroke in individuals who can’t take blood thinners.
Maintenance of the corrected rhythm is the most challenging part of treating AFib. In some patients, normal rhythm cannot be restored for various reasons. In this instance, heart rate control with medications and/or the implantation of a pacemaker may be needed. If you have AFib, a discussion with your doctor and, subsequently, a referral to an electrophysiologist can help you determine the best treatment method.
To learn more about TMH's electrophysiology program, visit Tallahassee Memorial Electrophysiology Program. And for information on how to be referred to an electrophysiologist with TMH Physicians Partners, Cardiac & Internal Medicine Specialists, services provided by Southern Medical Group, call 850- 216-0100.
For more information and facts about atrial fibrillation, visit the Heart Rhythm Society's website.