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What is Atrial Fibrillation? 

We’ve all experienced our hearts “racing” and usually it’s after either physical exertion or as a result of being frightened or emotionally upset.  But for some, a rapid heart rate can be a warning of a potential disaster, like a clot or stroke.  This can be the result of atrial fibrillation, A-fib, an abnormal heart rhythm, also known as an arrhythmia. What happens is that blood flowing through the top chambers to the bottom chambers of the heart, usually at a regular rhythm, is interrupted and varies from beat to beat.  The end result is the heart cannot efficiently pump blood to the rest of the body. 

 

Not everyone shows symptoms or they may exhibit only intermittent symptoms of arrhythmia. However, recognizing and treating A-Fib early in its development can greatly improve the chances of avoiding future complications. Some common symptoms of A-fib include heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat, being out of breath when lying flat, chest pain, low blood pressure, light-headedness, and fainting. All of these require medical intervention. You can do your own unscientific check of your heart rate by placing your middle finger on the underside of your hand, just below the thumb, and feeling for your pulse to determine if it’s beating regularly or not. 

 

Unfortunately, if you do not have symptoms, or are not aware of having A-fib and it goes untreated, your first indication may be a stroke or heart failure.  Another complication of undiagnosed or unmanaged A-fib blood clots that can form in pools in one of the upper chambers of an irregularly beating heart. If a piece of a blood clot, called an embolus, breaks off and travels to other parts of the body such as the brain or lungs, it can be fatal. 

 

If the clot stops blood flow to part of the brain, a stroke cuts off oxygen and the cells in that area die. The results can vary from weakness on one side of the body to vision problems, difficulty with speech or movement of the body. 

 

Here are a few factors associated with the onset of A-fib: Age- the older a person, the higher the risk; high blood pressure can add strain to the heart; pulmonary embolism –blood clot – in the lung; excessive consumption of alcohol; a family history of the disease, and severe sleep apnea. All of these factors increase the risk of developing A-fib. 

 

A-fib may be prevented by the usual list of healthy suggestions including: a heart-healthy diet, eliminating the use of all tobacco products and illicit drugs, and moderating your use of alcohol.  Managing your stress levels lowers blood pressure and can help prevent the development and progression of A-fib, as does establishing a lifestyle that includes regular physical exercise. 

 

Arrhythmia can be treated with a number of drugs that help control the heart rate or with blood “thinning” drugs like Warfarin, Eliquis, and Xarelto that restrict the body’s clotting capability. There are also surgical procedures that vary from electrical conversion – shocking the heart back to a normal rhythm – to cardiac or catheter ablation that eliminate the area or tissue that may be the cause of sending the errant electrical signals to the heart. 

  

The most important thing you can do is pay attention to your body and your heart, and don’t ignore signs or symptoms that indicate something may be wrong. If you choose to ignore warning signs, you do so at your own peril. 

 

Ron Kauffman is a Consultant & Expert Speaker on Issues of Aging. His wife’s geriatric management practice serves clients in Henderson, Polk & Brevard Counties.  He is the author of “Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease” available as a Kindle book on Amazon.com. He and his wife may be contacted at (828) 696-9799 or by email at:  drron561@gmail.com.