Millions of Americans suffer from an irregular and often rapid heartbeat. Are YOU one of them?
The American Heart Association estimates that 2.7 million Americans -- including many here in Chester County, PA -- are affected by Atrial Fibrillation, also known as A-Fib or AF. This heart rhythm disorder is a result of disorganized electrical activity in the atria (top chambers of the heart), which causes the atria to quiver irregularly instead of contracting like a regular heartbeat. A-Fib may cause some to feel symptoms from the quivering of the atria, including palpitations, fluttering, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness. Some do not experience any symptoms at all.
The biggest danger with A-Fib is to leave it untreated. Without treatment, those with the condition are five times more likely to have a stroke and have an increased risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications due to the weakening of the muscle.
Causes of Atrial Fibrillation
There are a number of acute (temporary) and chronic (long-term) conditions that can lead to this rhythm abnormality. There may be a familial tendency to develop A-Fib.
Possible acute conditions include:
- Lung disease, such as pneumonia
- Asthma attacks
- Occurrence of a metabolic disorder, such as an overactive thyroid gland
- Inflammation of the lining of the heart
- Having a heart attack
Possible chronic conditions include:
- Existing heart problems: This includes congenital (born with) heart defects or heart valve diseases. Additionally, A-Fib may be associated with hypertrophic, dilated or various other heart diseases that change the shape of the heart, interfering with the heart’s intricate electrical system.
- Longstanding lung problems
- Alcohol abuse
- Smoking and excessive caffeine consumption
- Excess weight
- Sleep apnea
For the most part, when the acute condition ceases or is treated, A-Fib is usually resolved. In the case of chronic conditions, treatment should target both the A-Fib and the chronic problem that is contributing to the risk of A-Fib associated events.
Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation
"The most common symptom of A-Fib is feeling a fast or irregular heartbeat. Patients sometimes describe it as feeling as though their heart is flip-flopping or skipping beats. However, it’s not uncommon to feel other symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath and fatigue," said Monica Pammer, physician assistant on the medical staff at Chester County Hospital in West Chester, PA.
Below is a list of some common A-Fib symptoms. Keep in mind many of these signs and symptoms are similar to those you would experience when your heart beat increases with vigorous physical exercise:
- Fast heartbeat – usually over 130-150 beats per minute. You can check your own pulse by placing a finger on your wrist or neck. If you were exercising, wait a few minutes to see if your heartbeat goes back to your normal rate, which should be between 60-100 beats per minute.
- Shortness of breath
- Vague chest discomfort
- Angina – chest pain or discomfort that occurs when the heart muscle does not get enough blood. Angina is more likely if the heartbeat is very fast and the heart is being put under a lot of strain.
- Increased urination
If you have any of these symptoms or think you may have A-Fib, contact your doctor. You may not have any signs or symptoms and still have atrial fibrillation in which case the condition can only be detected during a routine medical exam or EKG.
Atrial Fibrillation Risk Factors
In addition to acute and chronic conditions, there are several well-established risk factors that increase your chances of developing atrial fibrillation. These include:
- Age (older adults are more likely to develop A-Fib)
- Family history
- High blood pressure
- Coronary artery disease and heart failure
- Rheumatic heart disease
- Congenital heart abnormalities
- Sleep apnea
"A-Fib is not always preventable, but there are ways to reduce your risk. Maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle, which includes regularly exercising; eating a diet that incorporates vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins; smoking cessation; limiting caffeine and alcohol, and maintaining a healthy weight. If have been diagnosed with A-Fib, follow the medications and treatment plan your health care provider has prescribed you," added Pammer.
Atrial Fibrillation Treatment Objectives
While atrial fibrillation can be a challenging condition to treat, there are options available to manage the disorder. Patients will want to discuss any treatment plan with their physician, but many programs aim to:
- Prevent blood clots from forming, therefore reducing stroke risk.
- Control the heart rate, focusing on the number of times per minute the heart beats.
- Restore the heart to a normal rhythm which helps the heart’s chambers work together more efficiently.
- Treat underlying conditions that may be causing or worsening the A-Fib such as overactive thyroid function, other imbalances or various cardiac diseases.
There are different strategies to treat A-Fib and the goal may be to achieve some or all of the above objectives. The best approach for you depends on various factors, including whether you are currently being treated for other heart or medical problems. Sometimes, you may need a combination of treatments.
Download our guide on Atrial Fibrillation or call 800.789.PENN (7366) to schedule a consultation.