February is American Heart Month and an important time to learn more about this common heart arrhythmia.
Most people take a regular heartbeat for granted but according to the American Heart Association, at least 2.7 million Americans cannot. They are living with the most common form of irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation, or AFib. Unfortunately, many of those with AFib are either unaware they have it or are not receiving the treatment they need.
1. What is AFib?
- AFib is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) and is defined by having a rapid, irregular heartbeat.
- Normally, your heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat. In atrial fibrillation, the heart’s upper chambers beat irregularly instead of beating effectively to move blood into the ventricles.
- AFib can greatly increase your risk for heart-related complications, such as blood clots, heart attack, and stroke, and may be caused by many things such as high blood pressure or sleep apnea.
2. Who is at risk for AFib?
- Any person, from children to adults, can develop atrial fibrillation. AFib is more common in people who are over 50. It’s also more common in men than women. Underlying heart disease, a prior heart attack, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, excessive alcohol use, sleep apnea, and obesity can put people at risk for AFib.
- Because the likelihood of AFib increases with age and people are living longer today, medical researchers predict the number of AFib cases will rise dramatically over the next few years.
- Even though AFib clearly increases the risks of heart-related death and stroke, many patients do not fully recognize the potentially serious consequences.
3. What are the symptoms of AFib?
AFib can cause different symptoms. This is especially true when it is left untreated. Symptoms of AFib can include:
- Heart palpitations – the feeling that your heart is quivering, fluttering, skipping beats or beating too hard
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or fainting
- Weakness and tiredness (fatigue)
- Swelling in the feet, ankles and legs
Sometimes AFib has no symptoms, with the first signs of AFib being the same symptoms as a stroke.
4. How is AFib diagnosed?
The diagnosis usually starts with a health history review and physical by a primary care provider. The primary care provider often makes the diagnosis and will refer you to a cardiac electrophysiologist for further treatment. Other tests may be performed to determine a treatment plan such as an echocardiogram, a stress test, blood work or a sleep study.
5. How is AFib treated?
- The treatment of atrial fibrillation starts with a proper diagnosis through an in-depth examination by a physician. Every person with AFib has different needs. Cardiovascular specialists offer many treatment options from traditional medications to the most advanced, minimally invasive surgical techniques.
- At every stage of treatment, doctors work closely with patients and their families to treat any existing heart rhythm problems. Doctors also work to help reduce the risk of future arrhythmia issues. Every person is different, so a treatment plan should be tailored to each patient based on factors such as age, symptoms and other health conditions.
6. Looking for a second opinion?
Decisions about your heart care are important. There are many reasons you may be seeking a second opinion. If your diagnosis and treatment are unclear or complex, a second opinion may be helpful. It’s important that you feel comfortable with your heart care treatment plan.
7. Reasons for considering a second opinion:
- Your diagnosis or prognosis is unclear. (You’re looking for reassurance and accuracy of diagnosis.)
- You’ve been told you have a rare or life-threatening condition.
- You would like to explore additional treatment options or ensure you are being presented with the best treatment option for you.
- Your insurance requires a second opinion.
1-2% of Americans live with AFib, and up to 20% will experience it during their lifetime. Your heart care is important. To deliver personalized care, our cardiologists at Ascension Wisconsin start by listening to understand you, your health history and your goals. We take the time to answer all your questions — big and small. Remember to tell your doctor how you are feeling at each visit.
Shariff Attaya, MD is a cardiac electrophysiologist with Ascension Medical Group Wisconsin, located on the Ascension All Saints Hospital campus. He provides inpatient and outpatient care to patients with heart rhythm issues. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Attaya visit healthcare.ascension.org or call 262-687-8208. To learn more about heart care and AFib visit Ascension.org/WisconsinHeart.
American Heart Month
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