Atrial fibrillation: The dangers of living with an offbeat heart

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Imagine having moments when you're at rest, but your heart feels like it’s running a marathon. Some people living with a heart condition called atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF) experience periodic or long-lasting sensations where the heart is overexerting itself even though the body isn't in motion. If this condition is left untreated, a person's risk of stroke greatly increases. WVU Heart and Vascular Institute cardiothoracic surgeon Harold Roberts, MD, has more information for you about AFib and how to manage it if you’re affected.

AFib and stroke risk
AFib is a common abnormal heart rhythm that is caused when the heart’s two upper chambers beat erratically and rapidly. This can cause blood clots to form in the heart, which may lodge in an artery or travel to the brain, causing a stroke. More than two million people in the US are affected by AFib. Your risk of stroke increases by five times with AFib compared to people without this heart condition.

Symptoms
People living with AFib may experience heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, and fainting. Weakness and fatigue may also occur. If you experience pain in your chest or trouble breathing, seek medical attention immediately.

Some people with AFib don’t experience any symptoms, which is known as silent AFib. That’s why it’s important to get routine checkups. Your doctor will be able to detect any abnormalities in your heart’s rhythm with regular appointments.

Risk factors
If you have high blood pressure, it’s vital that you manage it appropriately; long-lasting, unmanaged hypertension and heart disease are among the most common AFib risk factors. AFib is more prevalent in people who are age 65 or older. More men than women develop AFib. Thyroid problems, excess alcohol use, sleep apnea, and lung disease also cause a greater risk of AFib.

Treatment
At the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute’s Center for Atrial Fibrillation, we are dedicated to providing you with the best possible care and the safest, most effective treatment based on the latest research.

Treatment aims to prevent blood clots from forming and lower your risk of stroke. Your doctor may prescribe blood-thinning medication to reduce blood clots from developing. Other medications may be used to slow your heart rate and return it to a normal rhythm.

Low-voltage electrical currents, called electrical cardioversion, may also be used to stabilize your heartbeat. These currents are delivered to the body through soft electrode pads that are placed on the chest. Before this procedure, you'll receive anesthesia so that you do not feel any pain and fall into a deep sleep.

Surgery or other minimally invasive procedures for AFib may also be used if your doctor decides it’s the best course of treatment for your individual needs.

Doctors at the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute were the first in the state to implant a new device called the WATCHMAN, which significantly reduces the risk of stroke in AFib patients. The WATCHMAN implant closes off an area of the heart to keep harmful blood clots from forming and potentially causing a stroke. For patients with AFib who are unsuitable for blood thinners, the WATCHMAN implant is an alternative to reduce their risk of stroke.

For AFib-related health concerns, schedule an appointment with a WVU Medicine provider: 855-WVU-CARE.