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Cardiologist Discussion Guide: Atrial Fibrillation

When you have atrial fibrillation (AFib), your heart goes out of its normal, steady rhythm. Instead of contracting fully, the upper chambers of your heart flutter irregularly (fibrillate). As a result, your heart can’t effectively send enough blood out to your body.

AFib is a very common type of heart rhythm problem — in fact, it’s the most common irregular heart rhythm, affecting about 2.7 million people in the United States.

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Although it’s a serious condition that puts you at risk for stroke and heart failure, it can be treated with medicines and other therapies.

Finding the best and most effective treatment is a team effort that involves your cardiologist, family doctor — and you. It’s important to work closely with your doctor, follow all treatment directions, and ask appropriate questions at each appointment.

Talking to your doctor about your symptoms

People with AFib often have no symptoms. Others may experience the following symptoms:

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  • palpitations
  • weakness
  • lightheadedness
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain

If you’re experiencing symptoms, discuss them with your doctor. Your doctor can help find ways to relieve your symptoms.

Your doctor may also ask you a few questions about your symptoms, including:

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  • How long have you been having these symptoms?
  • Are the symptoms continuous, or do they come and go?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • Does anything you do make them better or worse?

It will be helpful to prepare for these questions before your visit.

Questions to ask your doctor

Controlling your AFib with treatment can help you get back to your normal life. If you don’t treat your condition, however, you could develop dangerous complications such as stroke or heart failure.

To make sure you’re on the right treatment track, discuss these questions with your doctor at your next visit:

  • What caused my AFib?
  • Was it caused by high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, congenital heart disease, or another condition?
  • How should I treat the condition that’s causing my AFib?
  • Do I need to take blood-thinning medications?
  • Do I need to take medicine for my AFib?
  • Do I need to take medicines to control my heart rhythm?
  • What should I expect my medicines to do?
  • What happens if I miss a dose of my medicine?
  • What side effects might my medication cause?
  • How will my AFib medicine interact with medicines I’m taking for other conditions?
  • Will I need a medical procedure to treat my AFib?
  • Will I need to have the maze procedure, a catheter ablation, or another medical procedure?
  • Will I need a pacemaker to control my heart rhythm?
  • What are the possible risks and side effects of the procedure I’m having?
  • Will my insurance cover the cost of my AFib treatment?
  • What lifestyle changes can I make to help control my condition?
  • What changes do I need to make to my diet? Which foods can I eat? Which foods should I avoid?
  • Do I need to lose weight? If so, how much weight should I lose?
  • Do I need to avoid caffeine and alcohol?
  • Can I exercise? If so, what types of exercise should I do, and for how long should I do them?
  • Do I need to stop smoking?
  • Should I monitor my blood pressure and cholesterol levels? If so, how often should I have them checked?
  • How can I learn more about AFib?
  • Can you recommend any websites or other resources?
  • When should I come back for a follow-up appointment?
  • How often do I need to see you?
  • For what symptoms should I call you?
  • Do I need to see any other specialists?

Bring a notebook with you to every doctor’s appointment. In it, describe your symptoms and any medications you’re taking. If you are able, record you blood pressure and heart rate. Jot down notes about your personal medical history and family medical history of conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Use the notebook to write your doctor’s answers to your questions.

As you navigate through your treatment, consider your doctor to be your advocate. With a little assistance from you, your doctor will help you gain control over your AFib.

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