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Weekend Check-Up

 

September 8, 2018

 

September Calls Attention to Atrial Fibrillation

 

By Rachel Livinston, Director of Home Health

Have you ever felt the pitter patter of your heart while experiencing excitement, fear, or stress? This is a normal response that we all feel at some point in our lives. However, if you feel this pitter patter or irregular heart rhythm more regularly, you may suffer from a condition known as Atrial Fibrillation or Afib for short. September is Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month so this is a perfect time to provide education on the causes, symptoms, treatments, and potential complications of Afib.

What is Atrial Fibrillation?Rachel Livingston Home Health

To understand what Afib is, you need to understand how your heart works first! There are four chambers that make up your heart: two upper chambers called the atria and two lower chambers called the ventricles. In Afib, the atria do not work correctly due to abnormal electrical impulses. This can cause the atria to quiver or beat irregularly and out of coordination with the ventricles. When this happens, it results in blood not being forcefully moved from the atria into the ventricles causing the blood remaining in the atria to become static or stationary which can allow blood clots to form. 

There are two forms of atrial fibrillation:

  • Paroxysmal or intermittent- This is when Afib episodes occur intermittently and spontaneously resolve within seven days.
  • Chronic or persistent- This is when Afib lasts beyond seven days and does not resolve spontaneously.
  • Permanent- In this type of Afib, the abnormal rhythm cannot be restored and will most likely require medication to control the heart rate.

What causes Atrial Fibrillation?

The most common cause of Afib is an abnormality or damage to the heart’s structure. Possible causes are:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attacks
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Overactive thyroid gland
  • Sleep apnea
  • Lung diseases
  • Abnormal heart valves

What are the symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?

Some people with Afib may not have any symptoms, so it is only discovered during a physical examination. Those who do have symptoms may experience:

  • Palpitations- racing, uncomfortable, irregular heart beat
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion

What are the treatments of Atrial Fibrillation?

  • Electrical cardioversion- This is when an electrical shock is delivered by paddles placed on the chest to “reset” the heart rhythm.
  • Radiofrequency ablation- This is a procedure in which a catheter is inserted through a blood vessel to your heart. The catheter sends energy to “zap” the part of the heart that is causing the irregular electrical activity.
  • Medications- Your physician may put you on a medication that will slow the electrical conduction from the atria to the ventricles. These medications are classified as a beta blocker or calcium channel blocker. There are many different medications on the market.
  • Pacemaker- If you are on one of the above mentioned medications, it may cause your heart to beat too slow resulting in the need for a pacemaker. (A pacemaker is a small, metal device that is implanted in your chest with wires connected to your heart. It senses if your heart is beating too slow and then sends electrical impulses to tell your heart to beat.) It is not uncommon to see a pacemaker and a rate control medication used together.

What are the complications of Atrial Fibrillation?

Afib increases your chance of a stroke due to the risk of blood clots forming in the heart, then traveling to your brain. This is due to the chaotic rhythm of your heart not completely emptying the blood from the atria allowing blood to remain stationary and solidify.  Most common treatments to prevent blood clots are:

  • Anticoagulant drugs- These drugs are also known as “blood thinners.” Since these drugs thin your blood, it does increase the chance of internal bleeding so there should be careful monitoring of side effects. There are many different options of anticoagulant drugs, some of which require periodic blood tests to ensure effectiveness of the drug. Be sure to speak with your physician about which drug best fits your needs.
  • Antiplatelet drugs- These drugs are a more reasonable option in people with a lower risk of stroke. Aspirin is the most frequently used.
  • Mechanical devices- Patients who cannot take anticoagulants for clot prevention due to an extremely increased risk of bleeding could be candidates for a device that is placed in one of the upper chambers of the heart. This device prevents clots from leaving the heart.

The good news is that Afib can be treated and/or controlled with help from your physician. Most atrial fibrillation can be managed allowing patients to live a relatively normal, healthy lifestyle. If you are concerned that you may have Afib, contact your physician and follow up as directed.

 

The "Weekend Check-Up" is a regular health column published in the Cowley Courier Traveler penned by employees and friends of William Newton Hospital.