All about atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most commontype of heart rhythm disturbance(arrhythmia) in the United States.  There are approximately 2.6 to 6.1 million people in the U.S. with AFib and that number is expected to rise to 5.6 to 12 million Americans by the year 2050.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Arrhythmia or AFib is a problem with the heart’s rhythm or an irregular heartbeat.  The job of the heart is to pump blood around the body as it “beats” or contracts.  The blood pumped by the heart delivers oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.  The human heart has four chambers.  In a healthy heart, the atria are the receiving chambers that pump blood into the ventricles – the discharging chambers.  The atria and ventricles work together to keep the heart pumping at a steady pace, maintaining healthy circulation throughout the body.

AFib is typically characterized by chaotic, disorganized electrical activity in the upper chambers of the heart.  When AFib occurs, the atria (upper chambers of the heart) fibrillate (beat very fast) resulting in an irregular heart rhythm.  Many people with AFib can immediately recognize a sensation of palpitations with other symptoms that may include chest pain, difficult or labored breathing, fatigue, and lightheadedness. 

What are the dangers of having atrial fibrillation?

AFib is not always life-threatening however there is an increased risk of stroke and heart failure for some patients who have the condition.  The reason for this is that when the atria is fibrillating and not pumping blood effectively, blood may pool in parts of the atria.  A blood clot could form that could break loose and travel to the brain or heart, causing a stroke or heart attack. People with AFib are up to five times more likely to have a stroke than people who do not have AFib. 

The risk for a stroke or heart attack is low in patients who are young with  AFib but the risk increases in older patients. 

To reduce the risk of someone with AFib from having a stroke, blood thinners or anticoagulant medications may be prescribed making it harder for the blood to clot.

Treating AFib

Since AFib is a commonly diagnosed condition, there are many treatment options and therapies that can greatly reduce the symptoms or correct AFib allowing a person to live a normal life.  Left untreated, a person could experience further complications such as stroke or worsening heart disease.

To treat AFib, a doctor’s goals will be to reset the rhythm of the heart, control the rate it is beating, and to reduce the risks of blood clots. 

Treatment chosen will depend on whether a person has other heart problems, what medications they are currently taking, their response to previous treatments, and the severity of their AFib.

Here are some examples of treatments a person with AFib may be advised to do:

·Cardioversion – This is done to reset the heart rhythm which can be done electrically or carried out with drugs.  Electrical cardioversion is done under sedation and involves shocking the heart to temporarily stop it with the aim that when it is restarted, it will have regular beats or be back in rhythm.

Cardioversion can also be done with medication called antiarrhythmics given by vein or by mouth. 

·Preventive medication – There are several medications to control heart rhythm and heart rate.  After a cardioversion a patient may be prescribed an anti-arrhythmic medication to prevent further problems with heart rhythm.  To control heart rate, other medications such as digoxin, calcium channel blockers, and beta-blockers may be prescribed.

·Catheter and surgical procecures – If medication is not effective, additional procedures can be done such as a catheter ablation, surgical maze procedure or atrioventricular node ablation.

Steps to take when living with AFib

AFib can be challenging but there are several important lifestyle steps one must do to deal effectively with this condition.  These include:

·Eating a heart-healthy diet – Food choices can impact overall health fitness and people with AFib should eat less saturated fat and sugary foods, while increasing green leafy vegetables, lean proteins, and fiber intake.

·Maintaining a healthy body weight

·Consumption of alcohol and caffeine should be avoided if it triggers AFib

·Stop smoking

·Engage in a safe and reasonable level of physical activity but always consult with your healthcare professional for their advice

·Reduce stress – Stress can complicate AFib.  Take steps to reduce stress with exercise, breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, adequate sleep, and spending time with loved ones