Atrial fibrillation is often difficult to diagnose. From symptoms to coping mechanisms, we explore everything you need to know about AFIB.
Ideally, the heart beats in a normal, rhythmic fashion. This allows for blood to move efficiently through the body. Individuals who suffer from atrial fibrillation, however, commonly experience erratic or racing heart beats, affecting both the effectiveness of blood circulation and overall health.
Atrial fibrillation occurs when the heart rhythm begins in the atria instead of the sinus node from which it generally originates. When this occurs, a collection of impulses fire at once instead of in a slow and orderly progression. This results in a rapid and disordered heart rhythm. Not only is this experience often disquieting to the individual experiencing the sensation, it is also potentially problematic as this awkward rhythm prevents the atria from properly moving blood into the ventricle.
Atrial fibrillation, otherwise known as AF or quivering heart, affects approximately 2.7 million Americans, estimates the American Heart Association. While not an uncommon condition, this heart rhythm dysfunction can have serious consequences, so being aware of the presence of the condition and responding appropriately to it are both vital to maintenance of overall health and wellbeing.
Some people suffering from atrial fibrillation show no outward signs of the condition. These individuals are generally diagnosed when physicians notice the abnormal heart rhythm during a general physical examination. For others, symptoms harken the presence of the conditions. While symptoms vary in both severity and frequency, they can include weakness, difficulty engaging in strenuous physical activity and extreme exhaustion. Others experience lightheadedness or dizziness sometimes accompanied by confusion. Shortness of breath and chest pain can also be signs of the presence of the condition.
The most reliable diagnostic symptom is the experiencing of heart palpitations or uncomfortable irregularity of heart rhythm. Patients experiencing any of these symptoms are encouraged to contact their doctor and seek further testing as, while commonly a sign of atrial fibrillation, many are also tied to other medical conditions as well.
Often, the first step in diagnosing atrial fibrillation is the conducting of an electrocardiogram or ECG. By reviewing the results of this diagnostic test, doctors can determine the nature of the heart rhythm dysfunction and effectively differentiate between atrial fibrillation and other similar heart rhythm disorders, or arrhythmias.
Echocardiograms are also a commonly utilized diagnostic tool. This tool is generally non-invasive. During an echocardiogram, sound waves are directed at the patient’s heart. These waves bounce off the heart and allow the machine to produce a video of the heart pumping. This type of tool is particularly useful in detecting structural issues with the heart that may be the cause of atrial fibrillation or other heart rhythm issues.
In some cases, doctors may employ the use of a Holder monitor. This device is a portable ECG recorder that patient’s wear on their person to allow for the recording of the heart rhythm during activity. Often this device is employed when a doctor wishes to record heart rhythm for a period of approximately 24 hours.
Similarly, doctors commonly use Event records, a different form of portable ECG that allows for the recording of the heart rhythm for periods spanning weeks or months. This diagnostic tool is most useful in capturing heart rhythms in individuals who only experience occasional dysfunction as it allows patients to push a button when they feel symptoms commonly associated with heart dysfunction and only capture a small snippet of the day’s heart rhythm.
When diagnosing atrial fibrillation and planning for follow-up treatments, doctors also commonly conduct blood tests. When performing these blood tests, medical professionals specifically look for the presence of any chemicals that may be causing the atrial fibrillation.
The prognoses for individuals who regularly experience episodes of atrial fibrillation vary substantially as the severity and frequency of the heart rhythm interruption affects both the likelihood and severity of potential side effects. Patients who suffer from atrial fibrillation are at an increased risk of suffering a stroke.
The presence of atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke, as blood is more likely to form problematic and unwelcomed clots when it isn’t properly circulating through the body. While anyone with atrial fibrillation, or without for that matter, can suffer a stroke, the presence of certain risk factors increase the likelihood of experiencing this medical issue. Atrial fibrillation sufferers with high blood pressure and diabetes are more likely to experience a stroke than those without. Similarly, patients of a more advanced age are at an increased risk for suffering this medical episode.
In the most severe cases, atrial fibrillation can, over time, lead to the weakening of the heart muscle, which may ultimately result in, heart failure.
The treatment required will depend substantially on the type of atrial fibrillation with which the patient is diagnosed. Those that suffer from occasional atrial fibrillation, otherwise known as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, often require no treatment at all as, in cases of this type the heart rhythm is disrupted for only short periods of time.
In cases of persistent atrial fibrillation, which occurs when the rhythm doesn’t return to normal without medical intervention, treatments may include electrical shock or the prescription of medication designed to control heart rhythm.
In instance of the most severe form, permanent atrial fibrillation, a condition in which the heart rhythm cannot be restored, patient’s require medication to remediate the effects of the condition as well as blood thinners to reduce the likelihood of clotting.
Depending on both the cause and severity of the arrhythmia, doctors may elect to perform an electrical cardioversion. Patients are sedated for the procedure in which a brief electrical shock is applied to the heart through the use of paddles or patches. The goal of this procedure is to modify the heart rhythm in such a manner that it reverts to the normal pattern.
A similar result can sometimes be achieved with medication. When doctors attempt to modify the heart rhythm through the use of medication, referred to as cardioversion with drugs, the patient is given oral or intravenous medication. This procedure is performed in a hospital and the patient is monitored throughout, allowing medical professionals to modify the type and quantity of medication being given in response to the changes it produces. Generally, patients who are treated with this type of treatment will take the same medicine used to modify the heart rhythm, or something similar, indefinitely to ensure that the heart rhythm doesn’t revert back.
In the extreme cases of atrial fibrillation, when other less-invasive methods of restoring the heart rhythm prove ineffective, doctors are forced to try catheter or surgical procedures. In one of these procedures, catheter ablation, doctors insert a catheter into the groin and directed to the heart. The doctor then uses these catheters to destroy hot spots that are acting as pacemaker cells and causing the irregular heartbeat.
Atrioventricular Node Ablation is another option in treating this condition. In this procedure, doctors use a catheter to apply radiofrequency energy and destroy the energy pathway that connects the atria, or upper chamber of the heart, to the ventricles, or lower chambers of the heart. This procedure is generally followed with the implantation of a pacemaker to ensure that the ventricles continue to beat appropriately.
The most invasive option patients suffering from atrial fibrillation may face is a surgical maze procedure. This procedure is performed during an open-heart surgery. Doctors perform this procedure by creating incisions in the upper chambers of the heart to scar the tissue. The reason doctors do this is because the scarred tissue does not carry electrical impulses. As such, the presence of this intricate pattern of scars prevents the formation of electrical impulses that leads to atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation most commonly occurs when there is damage to the heart structure as the result of an existing abnormality. There are some lifestyle-related risk-factors that can increase a patient’s likelihood of suffering from atrial fibrillation. These factors include high blood pressure and excessive exposure to stimulants, including medications, tobacco, alcohol or caffeine.
Individuals who suffer from high blood pressure are encouraged to seek medical treatment for this issue as to prevent it from worsening and potentially leading to a heart dysfunction, including but not limited to atrial fibrillation. Similarly, stimulant users should exercise caution and seek to reduce their reliance on chemical stimulants to both improve overall health and avoid the development of this condition. The persistent presence of sleep apnea has also been tied to an increase risk of atrial fibrillation. Individuals who suffer from this disruptive sleep disorder will benefit from seeking medical treatment for the condition before it leads to the development of additional medical conditions, potentially including atrial fibrillation.
As with nearly all heart-related maladies, atrial fibrillation can at times be prevented through the maintenance of a healthy diet and the following of a structured and regular exercise program. Any efforts towards healthy living not only have a potential impact on the development of causal conditions such as high blood pressure but also improve the overall health of the heart muscle.
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