Health Tips & Topics
If your heart is fluttering, it might not be your new romance. You might have an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. Learn more here from a medical expert.
Atrial fibrillation (Afib) is the most common heart rhythm disturbance affecting approximately 3 million Americans. During atrial fibrillation, the top chambers of the heart (atria) beat irregularly or quiver (fibrillate) reducing their ability to pump blood into the lower chambers of the heart. The overall heart pumping capacity, or cardiac output, is reduced and blood can pool in the upper chambers of the heart which increases a patient’s risk for a stroke if not appropriately treated.
The incidence of Afib increases with age; the average age of an afib patient is 75 years old. Afib is also more common in patients with previous heart conditions such as a leaky valve or a history of a weakened heart.
The most common symptoms of atrial fibrillation are a racing or irregular heart beat. Other symptoms include reduced exercise capacity, fatigue and shortness of breath, weakness or lightheadedness. A small subset of Afib patients has no symptoms at all and their Afib is discovered during a routine office visit with their doctor.
Darren Traub, DO, a heart rhythm specialist at the St. Luke’s Heart and Vascular Center says, “If you are experiencing symptoms such as a racing heartbeat or irregular heartbeat, it is important to reach out to your doctor because you may have a heart rhythm disturbance or atrial fibrillation. Also, since many people who have AFib won’t experience any symptoms at all, it is important to have regular physical exams with your primary care physician especially as you get older. High blood pressure, obesity and sleep apnea, heavy alcohol use, abnormal heart valves and coronary artery disease increase a patient’s risk for having AFib.
The goal of treating Afib is to protect a patient from having a stroke and to make them feel better. Stroke protection usually involves taking a medication called an oral anticoagulant or blood thinner. Not all patients who have atrial fibrillation are recommended to take a blood thinner. The decision is a combined decision between patient and physician after the risks and benefits are carefully weighed.
For treating symptoms there are many accepted approaches. Doctors may prescribe drugs call AV nodal blocking agents that are designed to slow the heart rate down. A second class of agents called anti-arrhythmic drugs can be used to restore the heart’s regular rhythm and keep the heart beat regular. Finally, a procedure called a catheter ablation is commonly performed to eliminate the area in the heart responsible for causing atrial fibrillation.
“The good news is that today we have so many great treatment options for patients with atrial fibrillation,” says Dr. Traub. “We now have many well tolerated medications and procedures to make people with atrial fibrillation feel better and protect them from experiencing a stroke. At St. Luke’s Heart and Vascular Center, we offer all of the most advanced therapies for treating the afib patient. I have treated many patients with atrial fibrillation that go on to live normal lifestyles including skiing, fishing and even running marathons!”