Atrial fibrillation, also called AF or AFib, is the most common type of heart rhythm disorder. People with this condition are at higher risk for serious medical complications, such as dementia, heart failure, stroke, or even death. Too many of those affected by the condition don’t realize that they have it, and many who have it don’t realize the seriousness of the affliction. All too often, healthcare providers may also minimize the effects of the condition.
September is Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month, designated to help patients and healthcare providers learn more about this complex condition. In addition to stroke prevention, additional know-how can improve the overall wellness of those suffering from AFib. Often, those with AFib have a lower quality of life than those who have suffered a heart attack. And, unfortunately, some healthcare providers may not know about treatment options that can essentially put a stop to the condition.
For those who have AFib, seeking information about the ailment and finding early treatment are imperative. The longer someone has AFib, the more likely they will convert from intermittent AFib to enduring it all the time, making it much more difficult to stop or cure.
Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib or AF) is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. A racing, pounding heartbeat that happens for no apparent reason should not be ignored, especially when other symptoms are also present — like shortness of breath with light physical activity or lightheadedness, dizziness, or unusual fatigue. AFib occurs when the heart muscles fail to contract in a strong, rhythmic way. When a heart is in AFib, it may not be pumping enough oxygen-rich blood out to the body.
Why is AFib associated with a five-times-greater risk for stroke?
When the heart is in AFib, the blood can become static and can be left pooling inside the heart. When blood pools, a clot can form. When a clot is pumped out of the heart, it can get lodged in the arteries which may cause a stroke. Blocked arteries prevent the tissue on the other side from getting oxygen-rich blood, and without oxygen the tissue dies.
Any person who has AFib needs to evaluate stroke risks and determine with a healthcare provider what must be done to lower the risks. Studies show that many people with AFib who need risk-lowering treatments are not getting them. Learn more about stroke risks with the CHA2DS2–VASc tool.
If I don’t have these symptoms, should I be concerned?
There are people who have atrial fibrillation that do not experience noticeable symptoms. These people may be diagnosed at a regular check-up or their AFib may be discovered when a healthcare provider listens to their heart for some other reason.
However, people who have AFib with no symptoms still have a five-times-greater risk of stroke. Everyone needs to receive regular medical check-ups to help keep risks low and live a long and healthy life. Many may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
The symptoms are generally the same; however, the duration of the AFib and underlying reasons for the condition help medical practitioners classify the type of AFib problems.
Over a period of time, paroxysmal fibrillation may become more frequent and longer lasting, sometimes leading to permanent or chronic AFib. All types of AFib can increase your risk of stroke. Even if you have no symptoms at all, you are nearly 5 times more likely to have a stroke than someone who doesn’t have atrial fibrillation.
Fluttering and palpitations are key symptoms of AFib and are the key differences, but many heart problems have similar warning signs. If you think you may be having a heart attack, DON’T DELAY. Get emergency help by calling 9-1-1 immediately. A heart attack is a blockage of blood flow to the heart, often caused by a clot or build-up of plaque lodging in the coronary artery (a blood vessel that carries blood to part of the heart muscle). A heart attack can damage or destroy part of your heart muscle. Some heart attacks are sudden and intense — where no one doubts what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help.
People living with AFib should know the Warning Sings
As stated earlier, having atrial fibrillation can put you at an increased risk for stroke. Here are the warning signs that you should be aware of:
Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
Discomfort in Other Areas of the Upper Body
Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
Shortness of Breath
With or without chest discomfort.
May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Spot a stroke F.A.S.T.:
Call 9-1-1 immediately if you notice one or more of these symptoms, even if they are temporary or seem to disappear.
Although no one is able to absolutely guarantee a stroke or a clot is preventable, there are ways to reduce risks for developing these problems.
After a patient is diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, the ideal goals may include:
Avoiding atrial fibrillation and subsequently lowering your stroke risk can be as simple as foregoing your morning cup of coffee. In other words, some AFib cases are only as strong as their underlying cause. If hyperthyroidism is the cause of AFib, treating the thyroid condition may be enough to make AFib go away.
Doctors can use a variety of different medications to help control the heart rate during atrial fibrillation.
“These medications, such as beta blockers and calcium channel blockers, work on the AV node,” says Dr. Andrea Russo of University of Pennsylvania Health System. “They slow the heart rate and may help improve symptoms. However, they do not ‘cure’ the rhythm abnormality, and patients still require medication to prevent strokes while remaining in atrial fibrillation.”
If you or someone you love has atrial fibrillation, learn more about what AFib is, why treatment can save lives, and what you can do to reach your goals, lower your risks and live a healthy life.
If you think you may have atrial fibrillation, here are your most important steps:
Finding the right physician who gets your AFib, understands all the options for treatment, and will openly collaborate with you in your care is key. Use our first of its kind healthcare ecosystem to find one near you.
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