What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a heart condition that causes the upper chambers of the heart (known as the atria) to quiver. This quivering prevents the heart from pumping effectively. Normally, blood travels from an atrium to the ventricle (lower chamber of the heart), where it’s pumped either to the lungs or to the rest of the body. When the atrium quivers instead of pumping, a person can feel like their heart has flip-flopped or skipped a beat. The heart may beat very rapidly. They may feel nauseous, short of breath, and weak.
In addition to the heart sensations and palpitations that can come with AFib, people are at greater risk for blood clots. When the blood doesn’t pump as well, the blood that stalls in the heart is more prone to clot. Clots are dangerous because they can cause stroke. According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 15 to 20 percent of people who have a stroke also have AFib.
Medications and other treatments are available for those with AFib. Most will control, not cure, the condition. Having AFib can also increase a person’s risk for heart failure. Your doctor may recommend a cardiologist if he or she thinks you may have AFib.
What’s the prognosis for a person with AFib?
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, an estimated 2.7 million Americans have AFib. As mentioned earlier, as many as one-fifth of all people who have a stroke also have AFib. Because of this, most people over the age of 65 with AFib also take a blood thinner to reduce the likelihood of complications like stroke. This improves overall prognosis for people with AFib.
Seeking treatment and maintaining regular doctor’s visits can typically improve your prognosis when you have AFib. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), 35 percent of people who don’t receive treatment for AFib go on to have a stroke. The AHA cautions people that an episode of AFib rarely proves deadly. However, these episodes can contribute to other complications, such as stroke and heart failure, that are deadly.
In short, it’s possible for AFib to affect a person’s lifespan. This is mostly because it represents a dysfunction in the heart that must be addressed. However, many treatments are available that can help a person with AFib control their symptoms and reduce risk for major events, such as stroke and heart failure.
What complications can occur with AFib?
The two chief complications associated with AFib are stroke and heart failure. The increased risk for blood clotting could mean that a clot could break off from your heart and travel to your brain. The risk for stroke is higher if you have the following risk factors:
If you have AFib, talk to your doctor about your individual risk for stroke and any steps you could take to prevent one from occurring.
Heart failure is another more common complication associated with AFib. The quivering heartbeat and heart beating out of time can cause the heart to have to work harder to pump more effectively. Over time, this can result in heart failure. This means the heart has difficulty circulating enough blood to meet your body’s needs.
How is AFib treated?
Many treatments for AFib exist that range from oral medications to surgery. First, it’s important to determine what is causing the AFib in the first place. For example, conditions like sleep apnea or thyroid disorders can cause AFib. If a doctor can prescribe treatments to correct the underlying disorder, your AFib may go away as a result.
Many people with AFib take medicines that help the heart maintain a normal rate and rhythm. Examples include:
Doctors may also prescribe blood-thinning medications to reduce your risk of developing a clot that could cause a stroke. Examples of these medications include:
Doctors can also prescribe medications to ideally cardiovert (restore your heart to normal rhythm) your heart. Some of these medicines are administered intravenously, while others are taken by mouth. If your heart starts beating very rapidly, your doctor may admit you to a hospital until the medicines control your heart rate.
For others, the cause may be unknown or related to conditions that directly weaken the heart. If you are healthy enough, your doctor may recommend a procedure called electrical cardioversion. This involves delivering an electric shock to your heart to reset its rhythm. During this procedure, you are given sedative medications, so you aren’t usually aware of the shock. Sometimes your doctor will prescribe blood-thinning medicines or perform a procedure called a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) before cardioversion to ensure there aren’t any blood clots in your heart that could lead to stroke.
If cardioversion or taking medications doesn’t control AFib, a doctor may recommend other procedures. This may include a catheter ablation, where a catheter is threaded through an artery in the wrist or groin. The catheter can be directed toward areas of the heart that are disturbing electrical activity. A doctor can ablate, or destroy, the small area of tissue that’s causing the irregular signals.
Another procedure called the maze procedure can be performed in conjunction with open-heart surgery, such as a heart bypass or valve replacement. This procedure involves creating scar tissue in the heart so irregular electrical impulses can’t transmit.
Some people may also require a pacemaker to help their heart stay in rhythm. Doctors may implant a pacemaker after an AV node ablation. The AV node is the heart’s main pacemaker, but can transmit irregular signals when a person has AFib. Doctors can damage the tissue where the AV node is and implant the pacemaker to transmit correct heart rhythm signals.
How can you prevent AFib?
Practicing a heart-healthy lifestyle is vital when you have AFib. Conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease can increase your risk for AFib. By protecting your heart, you may be able to prevent the condition from occurring. Examples of steps you can take to prevent AFib include:
- Stop smoking.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet that’s low in saturated fat, salt, cholesterol, and trans fats.
- Eat foods that are high in nutrients, including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy and protein sources.
- Engage in regular physical activity that helps you maintain a healthy weight for your size and frame.
- Get your blood pressure checked regularly, and see a doctor if it is higher than 140/90.
- Avoid foods and activities that are known to trigger your AFib. Examples include drinking alcohol and caffeine, eating foods that have monosodium glutamate (MSG), and engaging in intense exercise.
However, it’s possible to follow all these steps and not prevent AFib. A healthy lifestyle will, however, enhance your overall health and prognosis if you do have AFib.