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How Your Heart Beats with Atrial Fibrillation
Your heart is amazing. It is a muscle that beats regularly every minute of each day, keeping you alive.
But sometimes that beating is not as regular as it should be. An irregular heartbeat is common. In fact, about three million people each year may be diagnosed with what is known as a heart rhythm disorder.
One of the most common rhythm disorders is atrial fibrillation, or AFib for short. It is a serious condition that requires medical care.
What is AFib?
Your heart runs on a kind of electrical system that makes it beat. When that system does not signal the heart correctly, it can cause an irregular heartbeat. With AFib, there is an abnormal electrical signal in the top chambers of the heart, known as the atria.
How serious is it?
AFib itself is not life-threatening. If left untreated, however, the irregular heartbeat can cause serious complications. Those include:
- increased risk of blood clots leading to stroke
- damage to the function of the heart
- congestive heart failure
Sometimes, people with AFib have no signs of their condition. If you experience a feeling like your heart is racing for a period of time, it could be a sign of atrial fibrillation. Other signs may include pain in the chest, shortness of breath, or dizziness, which could be signs of AFib or other serious conditions. If you experience any of those symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention quickly.
- Medications: With an irregular heartbeat, blood cannot flow as freely as it should throughout your body. As a result, this increases the chances of a blood clot. This increased stroke risk is often treated with blood thinning medications, known as anticoagulants. If you are taking anticoagulants like Warfarin or Coumadin, regular blood monitoring is necessary. Also, these medications cause a bleeding risk, so anyone taking these should be careful to avoid cuts or injuries.
- WATCHMAN Implantable Device: While blood thinners reduce the risk of stroke, they also have the potential to cause excessive bleeding. That is why implantable devices may be a better option for some patients. One device, approved by the FDA in 2015, is the WATCHMAN. This implant is placed permanently using a catheter-based procedure. This can help to prevent clots from forming to protect patients with atrial fibrillation from strokes without the long-term use of blood thinners. You can learn more about other innovative procedures here.
A variety of conditions may increase your risk for atrial fibrillation. Those include heart valve issues or heart defects you may be born with. Other factors that can contribute to AFib development include high blood pressure, obesity, and sleep apnea. These conditions, however, can often be managed through lifestyle changes and weight management. Learn more about seven steps to a healthier heart.
Any heart condition is a concern. The good news is that AFib can be treated so you can continue to enjoy life.
If you have AFib, be sure to seek the advice of medical experts who specialize in atrial fibrillation, including cardiologists and cardiac electrophysiologists. Learn more about our team and how we can help you here.
Antony Chu, MD
Dr. Antony Chu is the director of complex ablations within the arrhythmia services section of the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute and an assistant professor of medicine in the department of medicine at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. His research interests focus on atrial arrhythmias and their management.