2.7 million (give or take) Americans live with atrial fibrillation every day. The odds of having a stroke are 5 times greater for those with a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation. Risk factors that can contribute to the development of atrial fib include age (65 or older), high blood pressure, heavy alcohol use, sleep apnea, diabetes, and current heart disease (congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease).
AFib contributes to 158,000 deaths a year. It is obvious what the consequences are too uncontrolled/undiagnosed AFib.
Normally, our heartbeats in a regular rhythm. All four chambers beat in sync with each other and life goes on. The right upper chamber (right atrium) accepts blood needing to be oxygenated from two large veins (inferior and superior vena cava). As the right atrium contracts, it causes oxygen-depleted blood to flow into the right lower chamber (right ventricle) through the tricuspid valve. When the right ventricle contracts, blood is pushed through the pulmonic valve into the pulmonary artery. The blood is then transported to the lungs where carbon dioxide is traded for oxygen. This oxygenated blood is returned to the left upper heart chamber (left atrium) via the pulmonary veins. As the left atrium contracts, blood flows into the left ventricle through the mitral valve. When the left lower heart chamber (left ventricle) contracts, oxygen-rich blood is sent through the aortic valve into the aorta for distribution to the rest of the body.
In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of one’s heart (atria) beat irregularly (quiver). Blood is not moved from one chamber to another in an effective manner. This pooling of blood can then lead to clot formation and causes a myriad of symptoms.
A normal heart rate is considered to be a regular 60-100 beats per minute. When a heart is experiencing atrial fibrillation, one’s heartbeat will be irregular and may reach 200 beats per minute.
Common symptoms of AFib are lack of energy, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, heart pounding or racing, interruption of daily activities, and chest pain or tightness. It should be noted that there are many people who experience no symptoms at all. This, by no means, lessens the possible outcomes of atrial fibrillation.
It is necessary to work with one’s doctor to learn to recognize personal symptoms in order to determine the severity of the episode. Knowing what makes one “tick” aids in the decision to manage symptoms at home versus making a trip to the local emergency room. This could involve learning to count one’s heart rate by counting beats at the jugular vein in the one’s neck, knowing the symptoms of a stroke to allow for timely treatment, monitoring one’s bodily day-to-day functions in order to be aware of notable changes that necessitate a call or visit the doctor, and, maybe most importantly, regular follow-up visits with your cardiologist. Atrial fibrillation may come and go, but it is never gone and can be unpredictable. Over time, repeated episodes of AF can lead to a weakening of the heart muscle, stroke, and other heart rhythm changes. All of these can negatively impact a life well-lived whether that be by shortening a life span or interfering with one’s ability to take part in activities that bring one joy and a feeling of fulfillment.
AF can be managed to lessen its current and potentially long-term impact on one’s life. With lifestyle changes (stress reduction, smoking cessation, regular exercise), weight reduction and maintenance, control of other contributing health diagnoses (high or low blood pressure, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, sleep apnea, various other cardiac diseases, metabolic syndrome), and medications (beta and calcium channel blockers to decrease heart rate, “blood thinners” to help prevent clot formation) AF can be successfully managed.
When simple treatments do not provide adequate relief of symptoms, there are minimally invasive procedures available that can be performed by a physician. These may include cardioversion (carefully shocking the heart into a normal rhythm) or, possibly, catheter ablation (creation of scar tissue by a cardiac surgeon where the veins enter the heart which blocks errant electrical signals), or the placement of a pacemaker (heart rate control).
Atrial fibrillation is a serious medical condition that can be effectively managed and controlled. See your physician if any part of this article feels familiar. Knowledge is power.