What you need to know about atrial fibrillation or AFib

What You Need to Know About Atrial Fibrillation or AFib

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A doctor listens to a patient's heart during an office visit. Both people are wearing masks.

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is the most common type of arrhythmia, affecting more than 5 million people in the U.S. While it’s mostly common in the elderly, AFib can affect people of all ages. It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of AFib so you can seek proper treatment, and prevent other possible health risks that could come from having AFib, such as stroke and heart failure.

What is AFib?

AFib is a chaotic rhythm in the upper chamber of the heart. During AFib, the heart beats irregularly and out of rhythm with the lower chamber, which oftentimes causes poor blood flow. Episodes of AFib can come and go, or they can be continuous and not go away. There are many risks associated with AFib, such as increased risk for hospitalization, stroke, heart failure, and cognitive decline as you age.

There are many different things that play a role in causing AFib to occur. For example, your age, heart health, blood pressure, diabetes, and weight. As mentioned, AFib is common within the elderly population, but can affect people at any age. It’s more common amongst white Americans, those who are obese, and patients with high blood pressure.

Is AFib hereditary?

In patients who have AFib, there are certain small changes in your genes that make it more likely for you to have it. There are also some rare genetic mutations that make a person much more likely to have AFib. But in general, it’s more common that patients with AFib have those small changes in their genes that could have been passed down from a parent. But unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure because it’s not just one gene that if you have it, you have AFib. It’s a combination of multiple genes that play a role.

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is the most common type of arrhythmia. Cardiac electrophysiologist Dr. Sunjeet Sidhu shares what you need to know about #AFib, including symptoms, prevention, and treatment on the #LiveWellHealthy blog: bit.ly/3srCUUO.

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What are symptoms of AFib?

Interestingly enough, many patients with AFib don’t show symptoms at all. It’s not until they go to their doctor for a routine electrocardiogram (EKG) that they discover for the first time that they’re in AFib. But for those who do experience symptoms, some common ones include:

  • Heart palpitations, sometimes described as a fluttering in the chest
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Confusing and anxiety
  • Heart failure

As mentioned before, people experience AFib differently. AFib can be…

Persistent. An irregular heartbeat that lasts longer than seven days, but the abnormal rhythm can be stopped with treatment.

Paroxysmal. An irregular heartbeat that lasts less than seven days, usually less than 24 hours, and has recurred at least twice.

Lone. An irregular heartbeat that is paroxysmal or persistent and occurs without another form of heart disease.

Permanent. An irregular heartbeat that lasts longer than one year and does not respond to treatment if it has been attempted.

It’s important to see your doctor if you’re experiencing these symptoms, and seek treatment as soon as possible after being diagnosed. The quicker you receive treatment for AFib, the easier it will be to manage.

How is AFib detected?

The easiest way to see if someone has AFib is through an electrocardiogram, also known as an EKG, which records the electrical signal from your heart. If the patient is in AFib during their EKG, then it will clearly show the heart’s irregular rhythm. But, if the patient is not experiencing an AFib episode, their EKG will be completely normal.

If that’s the case, there are other tools to test if a patient is in fact experiencing AFib, such as a holter monitor, which is similar to an EKG. A holter monitor is a patch that patients wear on their chest for 24 to 48 hours that continuously records your heart’s electrical activity, just like an EKG. The patch just gives more time for the arrhythmia to be detected, whereas the EKG could only pick it up if you’re experiencing an episode while getting the test done at your doctor’s office. Even devices like smart watches can monitor irregular heart rhythms. While they’re not 100% reliable, they can be a great starting point to bring awareness to those not already diagnosed with AFib that their heart is beating irregularly, and they should go see a doctor to get it looked at.

Treatment options for AFib.

Generally speaking, there are two realms of treatment options when someone is first diagnosed with AFib, medication and surgery. The main goal of either type of treatment is to suppress the AFib, reset your heart rhythm, and prevent blood clots which lead to strokes.

Strokes are one of the biggest risk factors associated with AFib, and it’s strongly recommended that patients with a greater than 1% risk of stroke per year go on some sort of blood thinner to help reduce that risk, including many patients with AFib. But being on blood thinners is independent of managing AFib itself. In terms of the medications used to help manage AFib, usually doctors will start their patients out with medications that help control their heart rate. For example, Metoprolol and Cardizem, which primary care doctors and cardiologists use routinely with their patients. As your treatment becomes more specialized overtime to fit your needs, doctors will prescribe more medications like antiarrhythmic drugs to help prevent future AFib episodes.

One possible surgical option is a minimally invasive procedure called cardiac ablation that can be used to help control AFib. During this procedure, a tube is placed through a vein in the leg leading to the heart and then freezes the areas that are causing the irregular heartbeat. This option is usually best for someone with early onset AFib and no other significant risk factors. The optimal patients who choose cardiac ablation typically show a significant reduction, greater than 95%, in their AFib.

How you can reduce your chances of experiencing AFib.

The best way to reduce your chances of developing or continuing to experience AFib is simply by living a heart-healthy lifestyle. This will help manage the other risk factors that play a role in AFib, like weight and blood pressure. Ways you can do this include:

  • Exercising at a moderate intensity for 30-minutes a day, five days a week
  • Refraining from drinking alcohol in excess
  • Eating heart healthy foods
  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Working with your doctor to make sure your blood pressure is well controlled

Most importantly, you should seek help as soon as possible from a cardiologist or cardiac electrophysiologist if you feel you are experiencing AFib, or have already been diagnosed. The earlier you seek treatment, the easier it is to treat and decrease your risk of developing other possible health conditions.

Watch our Facebook Live broadcast with Dr. Sidhu to learn more about atrial fibrillation:

Want to learn more about AFib and treatment options with MedStar Health?
Click the link below.

MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute

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