Atrial fibrillation. Try saying that four times fast! Also known as Afib, this tongue twister is the most common type of heart rhythm disorder in the United States and makes the heart beat up to four times faster than normal. Characterized by an off-speed beat in the heart’s upper chambers (atria) that may feel like butterflies in the chest, Afib can lead to an increased risk of stroke and related heart problems. According to the CDC, between 2.7 million and 6.1 million Americans experience the disorder.
Afib is caused by misfiring electrical signals in the heart which cause the atria to spasm rather than fully contract. In a patient with Afib, the heart can beat up to 300 times a minute.
Fib #1: If you can’t feel your Afib, you’re not at risk for serious health effects.
According to Dr. Vora, most Afib patients underestimate their risk of stroke. All patients experience Afib symptoms differently. People with Afib may still be at risk for stroke, even if they have no symptoms of Afib.
“Your risk of stroke and feeling tremors from Afib is completely different,” Dr. Vora said. “You could very well be at high risk of having a stroke even if you don’t feel any heart palpitations.”
Every second counts when it comes to stroke. Your chance of survival and recovery is directly tied to how fast treatment is administered after symptoms first appear.
The acronym “BE FAST” can help you recognize the signs of a stroke:
Balance: Is there a sudden loss of balance or coordination?
Eyes: Is there persistent blurred vision and/or sudden trouble seeing?
Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
Time: If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.
To reduce stroke risk associated with Afib, physicians try to manage a patient’s abnormal heart rate or stop blood clots from forming using medication. Treatment depends on the care that is best for each individual.
Fib #2: If you take medication for your Afib, it will go away.
Once you are diagnosed with Afib, it is often a lifelong condition. While medications may help manage the symptoms of the disorder, they are not a cure.
Common medications prescribed for Afib include blood thinners to improve blood flow or drugs that affect the heart’s rhythm. These treatments help reduce how often Afib tremors occur.
“Even though two people might have Afib and take the same medication, the way each individual responds to them may be different,” Dr. Vora said. “If you take medications, you may still experience Afib symptoms, but they help manage their severity and frequency.”
Fib #3: If you have an ablation procedure to treat your Afib, you’re cured.
During an Afib ablation procedure, electrophysiologists use a special tool called a catheter to burn or freeze a small area inside the heart. This removes heart tissue and corrects electrical signals, improving irregular heartbeats. This procedure usually helps relieve symptoms and prevents the disease from worsening over time. But ablation doesn’t affect your risk of having a stroke, and blood-thinning medications may still be necessary, even after the procedure.
Dr. Vora said, “Ablation may not be a cure, but in many cases, it’s the best option for managing Afib symptoms.”
Fib #4: If you have an Afib episode once and it goes away, you’re no longer at risk.
Going back into normal heart rhythm after an Afib episode doesn’t mean it won’t return. Afib is a recurring disease that can worsen without treatment. Risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity and sleep apnea may put patients at a greater risk of experiencing frequent or more severe Afib episodes.
Risky behaviors such as binge drinking should be completely avoided, Dr. Vora said.
Fib #5: Once you have surgical treatment for Afib, you can stop taking your medications.
Not so fast, said Dr. Vora. After an ablation procedure, it is important to stay on all prescribed medications unless otherwise instructed by a doctor.
Your cardiologist determines what type of medication is needed to treat Afib using the CHA2DS2-VASc Score. This score estimates stroke risk, and is based on the following risk factors:
- Age >65 = 1 point
- Age >75 = 2 points
- Female = 1 point
- Congestive heart failure = 1 point
- Hypertension = 1 point
- Diabetes = 1 point
- A past stroke = 2 points
- Vascular disease = 1 point
“Afib is different for everyone,” Dr. Vora said. “But with help from a cardiologist and a quality treatment regimen, patients can work toward putting their heartbeat back in sync.”
Baptist Heart Specialists provide patients quality care for a variety of cardiovascular conditions. If you have more questions about Afib or wish to request an appointment with a cardiologist, visit baptistjax.com/heart.