Spotlight on Atrial Fibrillation

September 9, 2014


September is Atrial Fibrillation Awareness month and unless you are one of the three to four million Americans living with the heart arrhythmia, you may be unaware of the true risk of this condition.  Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) is the most common heart arrhythmia and is expected to grow by up to 400 percent by the year 2050 – affecting as many as 14 million Americans. For some, the condition can be asymptomatic, while others experience fatigue, dizziness, confusion, and fainting. It cannot only interrupt everyday life, AFib greatly increases the risk and severity of stroke.

For those who suffer from AFib, whether they are aware of it or not, the risk of suffering a stroke jumps five times compared to those who do not have AFib. Unfortunately, strokes can be fatal for more than 70 percent of patients with AFib who suffer a stroke. However, by diagnosing and treating AFib before a stroke occurs, health care providers can help prevent three out of every four strokes caused by AFib. Recognizing the signs and talking to your health care provider about your own risk is key to better heart and brain health.

Signs of AFib

You may experience fluttering in your chest or notice your heart rate slow or race unexpectedly. Other signs of AFib include, as mentioned above, more subtle signs like overall fatigue, dizziness, confusion, or fainting spells. Talk with your health care provider if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. They will be able to evaluate you further to see if you are having episodes of AFib by checking you heart rate, blood pressure and electrical activity through an ECG test. If further testing is needed, they may recommend that you wear a monitor for 24 hours or longer to better diagnose your condition.

Check Your Pulse

In addition to consulting your health care provider, you may check your pulse at home on a monthly basis to check for an irregular heart rhythm. An irregular heart rhythm could be a sign of AFib. Here are the steps to check your pulse at home:

Turn your left wrist so that your palm faces up. With your right hand, place two fingers on the left part of your wrist, where your wrist meets your thumb.

Push down slightly and move towards the center of your wrist, until you feel you pulse.

Position your fingers so that it is easy to feel your pulse. Do not push down too hard.

Continue to feel your pulse for a full minute. There is no need to count the beats, just pay attention to if the rhythm is a normal beat or not.

If you suspect you have an irregular pulse, contact your health care provider and share any other symptoms you may be experiencing. 

Treatment for AFib

Patients have a variety of options for treating their AFib based on the severity and regularity of episodes, age, underlying heart conditions, stroke risk, and their health care provider’s recommendation. From lifestyle modifications, such as proper diet and regular exercise, patients can begin to manage AFib episodes alongside or prior to medication therapy or surgical intervention. With regards to diet, it is important to understand caffeine and alcohol can trigger AFib. Additionally, foods high in vitamin K, like dark leafy greens, can interact with the druge warfarin. Patient should talk to their health care provider about how to maintain a balanced intake of these foods.

Exercise is very beneficial for AFib. Research has shown that regular exercise, like a yoga practice, can reduce episodes of AFib by up to 40 percent. However, with all exercise, talk to your health care provider first. They may recommend cardiac rehab, as a way to safely monitor your heart rate while you exercise. Also, remember to take it easy. Do not jump right into high-intensity workouts. Start by walking 5 to 10 minutes. Check your pulse and listen to your body. Contact your health care provider if you have any questions about the safety of your exercise regime.

Other treatments for AFib include medication therapies, like blood thinners, to help reduce your stroke risk. Some medications, like beta-blockers, help to slow irregular heartbeats, while others help to reduce the reoccurrence of AFib episodes. Cardioversion treatment is available to help get the heart rate back in normal rhythm. This can be accomplished through medication delivered intravenously or through electric shocks delivered to your heart. For more aggressive treatment of AFib, your health care provider may recommend surgical intervention through radiofrequency ablation. Some patients may have a pacemaker implanted to help regular their heart rate as well.

For more information on cardiac services available at BSA, please visit here or call 806-212-2000.