To Your Health: Know when it’s time to treat AFib

At least 2.7 million Americans are living with atrial fibrillation, or AFib, a quivering or irregular heartbeat originating in the upper chambers of the heart that can lead to more serious conditions over time.

Your heart is meant to maintain a steady beat, contracting and relaxing to pump blood throughout the body and to our brains. That pumping motion is initiated by electrical impulses in the atria, or upper heart chambers, which can be altered by factors like high blood pressure, an overactive thyroid, stress, sleep apnea, coronary artery disease or excessive exposure to stimulants like caffeine. Heart valve problems, infections or congenital heart defects can also cause AFib.

With AFib, chaotic, accelerated electrical pulses originating from the upper heart chambers move through the AV node, a hub which processes the signals and sends them to the heart. But the node can’t handle all of the signals at once, causing the heart to pump erratically.

Because of this and the problems associated with AFib, people with AFib are five times more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke.

However, many people with AFib are unaware that they have the condition or may not understand how serious it can be, causing them to avoid seeking treatment or medical oversight. In fact, the American Heart Association has found that only 33 percent of current patients consider atrial fibrillation a serious medical condition.

Ignoring or overlooking AFib can be extremely dangerous, so it’s important to know what to look for and stay in contact with your doctor.

Here’s what you need to know about spotting an irregular heartbeat, and when you should seek treatment.

Spotting AFib

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include a “heart racing” or pounding chest feeling, weakness, fatigue, trouble with exercise, dizziness, confusion, chest pain, shortness of breath and lightheadedness. Symptoms may come and go, as not all cases of AFib are marked by constant irregular heartbeat.

You may also not notice any symptoms at all, but a doctor can document an irregular heartbeat using an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to measure your heart’s electrical activity.

Seeking treatment

If you experience chest pain or find yourself struggling to perform normal functions, you should see your doctor immediately. A positive AFib diagnosis should be managed with regular check-ups from a cardiac specialist.

Lifestyle changes like incorporating heart-healthy foods into your diet, increasing exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding stress and caffeine can reduce your risk of heart problems, while certain triggers can be corrected to eliminate the condition entirely.

If your AFib is caused by high blood pressure or an overactive thyroid, those conditions can be treated and might resolve the issue. But that also means the irregularity could return without proper maintenance. In some cases, your doctor may administer light shocks to the heart to reset its rhythm or prescribe medications like beta-blockers to regulate your heart. Sometimes blood thinners are appropriate if AFib is persistent or recurrent. They can prevent blood clots, that build up in the heart when blood flow is irregular, that can break free and clog important arteries, causing strokes.

If a valve problem is at the root of your AFib, many alternatives are available to treat this and the AFib may get better. Sometimes, if a specific area of the heart muscle is thought to be the culprit in causing the AFib, cardiologists with special Electrophysiology training can use catheters and sophisticated recording electronics to identify, isolated and “ablate” the responsible regions.

Living with AFib

With a healthy lifestyle and careful maintenance, you can manage AFib and live a normal life. However, symptoms can worsen over time, so it’s important to see your doctor regularly. They will keep an eye on other risk factors and change your medications as needed.

It’s important to take an AFib diagnosis seriously, but also to remember that you can still live a healthy, active life even with the condition.

Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]