Bang, bang, bang! If you experience your heart banging against your chest or skipping beats you may be experiencing an arrhythmia. An arrhythmia is an irregular rate or rhythm of the heartbeat, where your heart can beat too fast or slow. Most commonly, this is caused by atrial fibrillation (AFib), when disorganized electrical signals cause the heart’s chambers not to beat in sync or fibrillate. Millions of Americans are affected by this disease and the number increases each year. AFib is the most common abnormal heart rhythm in America.
Men are more likely to experience this condition than women. It’s also more common among whites than any other race. Other risk factors include high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, lung disease, drinking large amounts of alcohol, thyroid problems and sleep apnea. Originally, AFib was thought a harmless disturbance; it is now accepted to be dangerous and requires intervention. Without treatment, the risk of stroke increases five to seven times (25% of all strokes are from AFib), there is a doubling in the risk of death, and if untreated may lead to congestive heart failure and dementia.
Symptoms include palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, sweating, fatigue, and weakness when exercising. There are different types AFib classifications and all of them increase your risk of stroke, death, and heart failure.
Sometimes AFib may not cause any signs or symptoms, so it’s important to see your doctor for an annual physical. An electrocardiogram is a test that records the heart’s electrical activity and may be used during your physical. It shows you how fast your heart is beating, whether you have a steady or irregular heartbeat and the strength and timing of passing electrical signals through each part of your heart. AFib is most successfully cured if it is identified and treated early.
Treatments for AFib include medications, non-surgical procedures, and surgical procedures when medicines do not effectively correct the heart’s beat. Medicines for AFib may be given through injection or pills until symptoms are controlled. If the medicines cannot be taken or blood thinners are not wanted, minimally invasive surgical and non-surgical, catheter-based procedures can be employed. These include electrical cardioversion and ablation treatments, both used in attempts of returning the heart back to its regular beat. Ablation uses focused energy to electrically deactivate the abnormal parts of the heart that are firing inappropriately. Another possible treatment involves implanting a small electrical device in the body with wires to the heart called a pacemaker. This device helps sense the heart’s rhythm and assists in regulating its speed. Many times AFib can mean another problem exists within the heart and both abnormalities need to be fixed. In some patients, surgery can be utilized to treat AFib either in combination with medicines or other ablation techniques. Success can be as high as 80 - 90% in certain patients if diagnosed and treated early. These surgeries can be done through small incisions using minimally invasive or robotic approaches. And, the culprit for most strokes from AFib and focus for some arrhythmias, the left atrial appendage, can be treated at the same time.
Exercise! Regular physical activity is important in reducing your risk of AFib. Don’t smoke or drink alcohol and limit or avoid caffeine intake. Also, make sure to eat a heart-healthy diet, low in salt intake and saturated fats to manage your cholesterol levels. Don’t allow your heart to miss a beat by taking the right precautions to ensure a long, healthy life. For more information about AFib, get an ECG, and talk with your doctor.
If you have AFib, see a specialist to see if some of the newer surgical approaches can be offered to you as a treatment rather than a life’s worth of medicines and blood thinners. In certain areas advanced AFib clinics and teams exist that focus on and specialize in all aspects of arrhythmias to help you and your doctor treat this disease. Heart rhythm specialists and heart surgeons are now combining their expertise for a joined procedure that is curing patients with permanent AFib previously considered incurable. Today, a comprehensive yet individualized treatment plan can be developed for you through the focused expertise of a multidisciplinary Afib team.
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