Skipping a Beat: The 411 on Atrial Fibrillation

It may have been a “Love Beat” for The DeFranco Family back in 1973, but for everybody else now, an irregular heartbeat could lead to strokes, heart attacks or heart failure. Known as atrial fibrillation (or more commonly, “AFib”), it describes when the atria – the two upper chambers of your heart – beat chaotically and out of time.

Unless you're checking your pulse, you are unlikely not to know your heart is beating irregularly per se. But you will know something is up from a whole suite of symptoms that includes:

·         Chest pain

·         Light-headedness

·         Palpitations

·         Weakness and Fatigue

·         Reduced ability to exercise

·         Shortness of breath

·         Dizziness and Confusion

These symptoms may come and go, lasting for a few minutes to hours, in which case the condition is known as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. Persistent AFib, in which your heart rhythm does not return to normal on its own, mandates a visit to your doctor. She will likely prescribe medications or even electroshock therapy to restore a regular heart rhythm.

There are many triggers which might cause your atria to march to the beat of different drummers, and these include high blood pressure, heart or lung disease, viral infections, stress, sleep apnea, a congenital condition, and – as you might expect – stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. 

When diagnosing, your doctor is going needs to rule out thyroid problems or substances within your blood that might cause the arrhythmia. She will likely do this via some combination of a blood test, stress test, and a chest X-ray.

If you are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, the treatment you will undergo will vary depending upon your symptoms and just how long you have been nursing the ailment. One way or another, your doctor is going to want to re-set your heart to its proper rhythm, a process known as “cardioversion,” which may be accomplished via electricity or medication.

In the first situation, your heart is actually stopped and re-started again (don't worry, you're under sedation at the time). After its very brief time out, in most cases, the heart comes back online beating in rhythm.

The family of medications from which your doctor may choose for your cardioversion comes from the family known as “anti-arrhythmics.” These may be delivered orally or intravenously, depending upon your condition.

If neither of these approaches effectively restores the proper rhythm of your heart, the doctor will likely opt for surgery.