More than 2.6 million people in the United States have atrial fibrillation – the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia or irregular heart beat. While atrial fibrillation itself is a very serious condition, the symptoms of the condition can also be quite serious.
Symptoms of atrial fibrillation are related to the fact that your heart is beating faster than is normal. Your body may perceive this rapid or irregular heart rate as:
• intolerance for exercise
• angina (chest pains caused by a lack of blood to the heart)
• congestive symptoms like edema (the build-up of fluid) and shortness of breath
Sometimes people don’t experience any symptoms and the condition is identified during a routine physical examination.
The good news is that you can reduce your symptoms when the right diagnosis is made and you follow through with the recommended treatment.
Atrial fibrillation is one of the most common rhythm disorders in U.S. adults over age 65. And those with the condition are four to five times more likely to have a stroke – a major stroke that leaves a person severely disabled or dead.
The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association think that educating people on the dangers of atrial fibrillation will save lives. They have established a joint goal to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent, while reducing the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke by 20 percent. A big part of their plan is to educate the public about atrial fibrillation.
Types of treatment
Once you have been diagnosed as having atrial fibrillation, the goal of treatment is to get your heart back into a normal rhythm through medication or a procedure such as electrical cardioversion, catheter ablation or surgical ablation. The second goal is more long term – to use anticoagulants to avoid developing blood clots or having a stroke.
The following are steps your doctor may recommend:
• Atrioventricular node ablation. The doctor uses radiofrequency energy to destroy the electrical connection (AV node) between the upper and lower chambers of the heart. This blocks the heart’s electrical impulses. Once the AV node is destroyed, you will receive a pacemaker to establish a normal heart rhythm.
• Cardioversion. The doctor gives your heart an electrical shock to help restore its normal rhythm by placing paddles or patches on your chest to electrically shock your heart.
• Catheter radiofrequency ablation. The doctor inserts a thin, flexible catheter (tube) into a vein in your arm or groin and then threads it through your blood vessels to your heart. Heat is applied through the catheter to destroy the problematic heart tissue. This heat is actually radiofrequency energy.
• Medications. Your doctor may prescribe medication to control your heart rate or heart rhythm, or to prevent blood clots. Beta blockers, especially cardioselective beta blockers such as metoprolol, atenolol and bisoprolol nebivolol can be given. Non-dihydropyridine calcium channel blockers, such as diltiazem or verapamil, can be considered. And in some cases, cardiac glycosides, such as digoxin, have limited use. Anticoagulants, like warfarin (brand name Coumadin) are given to decrease your body’s clotting proteins – and lessen the likelihood you will throw a clot.
• Pacemakers. A pacemaker may be the best way to help regulate your heartbeat. If that is the case, the pacemaker will be surgically placed under your skin near your collarbone.
• Surgery. A surgical option is maze heart surgery. A surgeon will make small cuts in the upper heart chamber to help disrupt the electrical signals that are causing the irregular heart beat. The doctor can sometimes access the heart through small incisions in the side of your chest – described as minimally invasive heart surgery. The benefits of minimally invasive surgery are that you have smaller, less noticeable scars, a lower risk of infection and less blood loss.
Most likely your doctor is going to want you to make some healthy lifestyle changes that will keep your blood pressure under control and improve your overall health. Common suggestions include:
• Eat heart-healthy foods that are full of phytonutrients, which prevent and repair damaged cells. Examples include salmon, whole grain foods and leafy green vegetables.
• Get some exercise, based on your doctor’s directions. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week – or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. You can break this down to 30 minutes a day, five times a week, or break it up into even smaller segments. Studies show you will also experience the benefits of exercise even if you divide your time into two or three segments of 10 to 15 minutes a day.
• Use less salt. Again, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams of salt a day.
The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for medical advice. All medical information presented should be discussed with your healthcare professional. Remember, the failure to seek timely medical advice can have serious ramifications. We urge you to discuss any current health related problems you are experiencing with a healthcare professional immediately.