What is Atrial Fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (AFib), is a common form of arrhythmia. The condition occurs when there are erratic electrical signals between the upper chambers of the heart, or atria. These signals confuse the heart's natural rhythm, causing the atria to squeeze too quickly. As a result, the heart fibrillates, or quivers.
What are the Risk Factors Associated with AFib?
AFib can affect anyone, but there are certain risk factors that can place patients at an increased risk. If you have any of the following, your odds of developing the condition may be higher than normal:
- Age - The risk of AFib increases as we get older. It is most common in those over the age of 60.
- Existing Heart Disease - Having a heart that is already weakened due to existing heart disease can increase your odds of developing AFib. It is also the most commonly reported complication following heart surgery.
- Family History - If a close family member suffered from AFib, there is a higher than average chance that you will as well.
- Chronic Health Conditions - There are several chronic health conditions that can impact heart health and potentially contribute to the development of AFib. These include high blood pressure, diabetes, and some thyroid conditions.
What are the Symptoms Associated with AFib?
Many patients have no symptoms associated with AFib. However, in cases where signs are present, indicators of the condition may include:
- Fatigue, particularly with activity
- Irregular or rapid heart beat
- Feeling of the heart "fluttering" in the chest
- Dizziness or feeling faint, particularly with activity
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain, pressure, or tightness
What are the Complications of Atrial Fibrillation?
Although many patients are unaware, AFib presents some serious health risks that can be severe or even life-threatening. Most notably, the condition increases patient risk for each of the following:
How is AFib Diagnosed?
If you are experiencing symptoms related to AFib or your doctor hears an irregular heart rate during an exam, there are additional steps that will be taken to confirm a diagnose of atrial fibrillation or other form arrhythmia. In many
cases, this is accomplished by monitoring the electrical impulses of the heart and the resulting heart rhythm using an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). During this procedure, several electrodes are attached to the skin as the patient lies still for a few short minutes.
However, because the heart must be actively in AFib for an EKG to provide an accurate diagnosis, some patients may need to be monitored for longer periods of time. In these cases, patients often wear a portable monitor known as a Holter monitor for a period of 24 - 48 hours. A cardiologist can then read and interpret the tests results over that time frame to determine if any episodes of AFib have occurred.
How is AFib Treated?
There are many potential treatment options for AFib. Which is best will be determined based on factors such as severity, patient age, and overall health. Potential options include:
- Lifestyle Changes - These can include eating a healthier diet, avoiding excess consumption of alcohol and caffeine, or quitting smoking.
- Medications - Medications to help reduce health risks associated with AFib often include blood thinners or anti-clotting drugs.
- Electrical Cardioversion - This procedure uses patches or paddles to deliver an electrical shock to the chest, "resetting" the heart to an appropriate rhythm. This is performed under a mild anesthesia.
- Cardiac Ablation - Cardiac ablation is performed in a cardiac cath lab. This procedure uses a catheter to reach the heart and deliver a form of energy such as radiofrequency or a laser to the specific tissue where the heart's electrical signals are misfiring. In turn, the erratic electrical signals responsible for AFib can no longer be produced.
- Pacemaker - In severe cases or in those where the above options are not viable, a pacemaker may be used to help the heart maintain an appropriate rhythm.