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.
What is atrial fibrillation?
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:
- General fatigue
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat
- Fluttering or “thumping” in the chest
- Shortness of breath and anxiety
- Faintness or confusion
- Fatigue when exercising
- Chest pain or pressure
Are there different types of AFib?
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.
- Paroxysmal fibrillation is when the heart returns to a normal rhythm on its own, or with intervention, within 7 days of its start. People who have this type of AFib may have episodes only a few times a year or their symptoms may occur every day. These symptoms are very unpredictable and often can turn into a permanent form of atrial fibrillation.
- Persistent AFib is defined as an irregular rhythm that lasts for longer than 7 days. This type of atrial fibrillation will not return to normal sinus rhythm on its own and will require some form of treatment.
- Long-standing AFib is when the heart is consistently in an irregular rhythm that lasts longer than 12 months.
- Permanent AFib occurs when the condition lasts indefinitely and the patient and doctor have decided not to continue further attempts to restore normal rhythm.
- Nonvalvular AFib is atrial fibrillation not caused by a heart valve issue.
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.
How are heart attack symptoms different from AFib symptoms?
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:
Heart Attack Warning Signs
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.
Stroke Warning Signs
Spot a stroke F.A.S.T.:
- Face Drooping: Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.
- Arm Weakness : Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- Speech Difficulty: Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “the sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?
- Time to call 9-1-1: If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get them to the hospital immediately.
Call 9-1-1 immediately if you notice one or more of these symptoms, even if they are temporary or seem to disappear.
10 ATRIAL FIBRILLATION FACTS THAT MAY SURPRISE YOU
- AFib affects lots of people. Currently as many as 5.1 million people are affected by AFib — and that’s just in America. By 2050, the number of people in the United States with AFib may increase to as many as 15.9 million. About 350,000 hospitalizations a year in the U.S. are attributed to AFib. In addition, people over the age of 40 have a one in four chance of developing AFib in their lifetime.
- AFib is a leading cause of strokes. Nearly 35 percent of all AFib patients will have a stroke at some time. In addition to leaving sufferers feeling weak, tired or even incapacitated, AFib can allow blood to pool in the atria, creating blood clots, which may move throughout the body, causing a stroke. To make matters worse, AFib strokes are fatal nearly three times as often as other strokes within the first 30 days. And according to a recent American Heart Association survey, only half of AFib patients understand that they have an increased risk of stroke.
- The U.S. Congress recognizes the need for more AFib awareness. StopAfib.org, along with several other professional and patient organizations, asked Congress to make September AFib Month. On September 11, 2009, the U.S. Senate declared it National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month.
- Barry Manilow has AFib. In 2011, Manilow spoke to Congress about AFib, urging the House of Representatives to pass House Resolution 295, which seeks to raise the priority of AFib in the existing research and education funding allocation process. The resolution does not seek any new funding. Other celebs with AFib include NBA legends Larry Bird and Jerry West, politicians George H. W. Bush and Joe Biden, Astronaut Deke Slayton, Billie Jean King, music mogul Gene Simmons and Helmut Huber, the husband of daytime TV star Susan Lucci.
- Healthcare professionals often minimize the impact of AFib on patients. According to recent research in the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, “Compared with coronary artery disease and heart failure, AFib is not typically seen by clinicians as a complex cardiac condition that adversely affects quality of life. Therefore, clinicians may minimize the significance of AFib to the patient and may fail to provide the level of support and information needed for self-management of recurrent symptomatic AFib.”
- AFib patients may go untreated. AFib can fly under the radar as some patients don’t have symptoms and some may only have symptoms once in a while. Thus, patients may go for a year or two undiagnosed, and sometimes not be diagnosed until after they have a stroke or two. Because some health care professionals perceive that AFib doesn’t affect patients’ everyday lives, a common approach is to just allow patients to live with the condition. But…
- The quicker the treatment, the greater the chance AFib can be stopped. For those who have AFib, information about the ailment and treatment options are imperative. The longer someone has AFib, the more likely they will convert from intermittent to constant AFib, which means it’s more difficult to stop or cure.
- AFib changes the heart. Over time, AFib changes the shape and size of the heart, altering the heart’s structure and electrical system. Research at the University of Utah shows that this scarring (fibrosis) from long-term remodeling is correlated with strokes.
- Treatments continue to rapidly evolve. For years, the standard treatment for AFib patients was to send them home with medications, some of which caused harm. Now there are additional options for stopping AFib, including minimally invasive ablation procedures performed inside and outside the heart. For stubborn and long-lasting AFib, open-heart surgery may provide a cure.
- You can make a difference in an AFib patient’s life. This month, forward a link to someone you may know who could have the condition. Attend an AFib awareness raising event or webinar. Or share StopAfib.org siteand ALittleFib.org with patients and friends. Something as simple as that can help someone become free of AFib.
Prevention and Risk Reduction
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:
- Restoring the heart to a normal rhythm (called rhythm control)
- Reducing an overly high heart rate (called rate control)
- Preventing blood clots (called prevention of thromboembolism)
- Managing risk factors for stroke
- Preventing additional heart rhythm problems
- Preventing heart failure
Getting Back on Beat
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.”
AFib Treatment Saves Lives & Lowers Risks
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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