Recognizing Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is one of the most common types of arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat. About 2.2 million Americans suffer from this every year. Risk increases as a person ages. People over 60 are at greater risk of this AF. According to the Centers of Disease Control, this affects one in every 10 persons who are over 80 years old.

If you have atrial fibrillation, the impulse doesn't travel through the atria the way it should. Instead, many impulses travel simultaneously, competing to get into the AV node (the heart rate coordinator). The result would be rapid and disorganized heartbeat that can range from 300 to 600 beats per minute. Fortunately, the AV node can effectively limit the excessive number of impulses going to the ventricles, bringing the pulse rate down to 150 beats per minute.

What Are the Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?
It's possible to have AF and not experience any symptoms. If you do, these would include:
- dizziness
- lack of energy
- chest discomfort
- pain or pressure
- feelings of exhaustion
- heart palpitations or sudden pounding in the chest
- shortness of breath even during normal activities or while at rest

What Causes This Condition?
Atrial fibrillation is linked with various conditions like:
- hypertension
- heart failure
- heart surgery
- heart valve disease
- chronic lung disease
- coronary artery disease
- congenital heart disease
- pulmonary embolism or blood clot in the lungs
- cardiomyopathy, which is a disease of the heart muscle that can bring about heart failure

AF may also be caused but only rarely by:
- viral infection
- hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid
- pericarditis, which is inflammation of the heart's outside lining

For those with no underlying heart disease or other medical condition, this may be brought about by:
- stress
- use of certain drugs
- electrolyte or metabolic imbalances
- excessive consumption of alcohol and caffeine

Why Is This Dangerous?
Some people can live for many years with AF and not experience any serious problem. But since the upper chambers of the heart are beating irregularly and rapidly, blood doesn't flow as sufficiently as needed. Because of this, it's more likely for the blood to clot. When there is a clot that travels to the brain, a stroke may result. And this is how AF can be dangerous.

- AF increases the risk of stroke five to seven times.
- More than 50 percent of AF-related blood clots lead to stroke.
- The other half, which travels to other parts of the body such as the kidney, intestines and heart, cause other serious problems.
- Since AF decreases the heart's ability to pump by up to 20 to 25 percent, this can lead to heart failure over time.
- Chronic atrial fibrillation, therefore, can be fatal.

How is AF Diagnosed and Treated?
These four tests are utilized to diagnose this heart condition:
- holter monitor
- electrocardiogram
- transtelephonic monitor
- portable event monitor or loop recorder

These devices help the doctor to determine the presence of irregular heartbeats and other information pertinent to treatment. Available treatment options are:
- medication
- lifestyle changes
- medical procedures and surgery

The treatments are done to achieve following:
- regain normal heart rhythm
- control heart rate
- prevent blood clots
- reduce risk of stroke

 


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