Experiencing atrial fibrillation is sort of like feeling your heart skip a beat, followed by a thud, with it then fluttering or racing along for a few seconds after. Some people notice just a weak or erratic pulse instead of its usual strong, regular beat, while other who suffer from this condition might find the symptoms so subtle that they’ll only realize something is up after becoming dizzy, weak or breathless.
No matter what a person with atrial fibrillation notices, it can easily be a cause for concern and anxiety. It is important for anyone having these symptoms to consult a doctor right away, as putting it off could potentially be life threatening.
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of heart rhythm disturbance (also called arrhythmia) in the United States. There are approximately 2.6 to 6.1 million people in the U.S. with AFib—that number is expected to rise in the coming decades as heart disease becomes more prevalent, effecting somewhere between to 5.6 to 12 million by 2050.
What is atrial fibrillation?
Arrhythmia or AFib is a problem with the heart’s rhythm. The job of the heart is to pump blood around the body as it “beats,” or contracts. The blood pumped by the heart delivers oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. The human heart has four chambers. In a healthy heart, the atria are the receiving chambers that pump blood into the ventricles—the discharging chambers. The atria and ventricles work together to keep the heart pumping at a steady pace, maintaining healthy circulation throughout the body.
AFib is typically characterized by chaotic, disorganized electrical activity in the upper chambers of the heart. When AFib occurs, the atria (upper chambers of the heart) fibrillate (beat very fast), resulting in an irregular heart rhythm. Many people with AFib can immediately recognize a sensation of palpitations with other symptoms that may include chest pain, difficult or labored breathing, fatigue, and light-headedness.
What are the dangers of having atrial fibrillation?
AFib is not always life-threatening, however some patients who have the condition will have an increased risk of stroke and heart failure. The reason for this is that when the atria is fibrillating and not pumping blood effectively, blood may pool in parts of the atria. A blood clot might form that could break loose and travel to the brain or heart, causing a stroke or heart attack. People with AFib are up to five times more likely to have a stroke than people who do not have AFib.
The risk for a stroke or heart attack is low in patients who are young with AFib but the risk increases in older patients.
To reduce the risk of someone with AFib from having a stroke, blood thinners or anticoagulant medications may be prescribed, making it harder for the blood to clot.
How to treat AFib
Since AFib is a commonly diagnosed condition, there are many treatment options and therapies that can greatly reduce the symptoms or correct AFib, allowing a person to live a normal life.
To treat AFib, a doctor’s goals will be to reset the rhythm of the heart, control the rate at which it is beating and reduce the risks of blood clots.
The course of treatment will depend on whether a person has other heart problems, what medications they are currently taking, their response to previous treatments and the severity of their AFib. Some of the treatments might include resetting the heart rhythm with drugs or electrical cardioversion, taking medication to control the heart rate, along with several possible surgical interventions.
Lifestyle changes to stay healthy when living with AFib
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. Food choices can impact overall health fitness and people with AFib should eat less saturated fat and sugary foods, while increasing green leafy vegetables, lean proteins, and fiber intake.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Avoided consuming alcohol and caffeine if that is one of your triggers.
- Quit smoking.
- Engage in a safe and reasonable level of physical activity (but always consult with your healthcare professional for their advice).
- Reduce stress. Take steps to reduce stress with exercise, breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, adequate sleep and spending time with loved ones.
Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital. He is a medical contributor for the Fox News Channel’s Medical A-Team. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, SamadiMD.com, davidsamadiwiki, davidsamadibio and Facebook.