By DR. MARCOS DACCARETT
Atrial fibrillation, sometimes called A-Fib, is the most common heart rhythm disorder, yet thousands of people in the United States who suffer from atrial fibrillation may not be aware of the dangers.
A-Fib is best defined as an irregular and often rapid heart rate. During atrial fibrillation, the heart's two upper chambers (the atria) beat chaotically and irregularly—out of coordination with the two lower chambers (the ventricles) of the heart.
Unfortunately, many people may not be aware that they are suffering from atrial fibrillation, so the condition may go untreated, which can potentially lead to significant medical complications, including risk of stroke, heart failure and reduced quality of life.
The disorder is very common in people with cardiovascular disease. In combination with age, factors like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart failure lead to structural changes in the upper and lower heart chambers which trigger and foster atrial fibrillation.
There are an estimated 2.5 million cases of atrial fibrillation in the United States. It is strongly age-dependent; about 25 percent of people age 40 and older will develop A-Fib during their lifetime. Those diagnosed with A-Fib are typically 65 or older, or are survivors of a heart attack and may suffer from conditions such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart failure. The disorder causes a very fast, irregular heartbeat, leading to symptoms of weakness, fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath and a sensation of a rapid heart rate or heart palpitations.
The biggest risk for those suffering from A-Fib is the danger of stroke. Because the blood is not circulating in the upper chamber of the heart, it can pool, forming a blood clot that can potentially cause a stroke. A-Fib patients are about three to five times more likely to have a stroke. Left untreated, A-Fib can also lead to heart failure because the fast heartbeat can weaken the heart and eventually cause the heart muscle to fail. Each year in the United States more than 60,000 deaths are attributed to atrial fibrillation. A-Fib can come and go in some people, but others may be faced with a chronic case.
To treat A-Fib, doctors alter the heart's electrical system with treatment that may include medication therapy, catheter ablations (nonsurgical treatment), minimally invasive and advanced surgical options and other interventions. See your primary care physician if you are concerned about A-Fib. There are multiple treatment options available that offer individualized care, specific for each patient's need. A-fib symptoms can be similar to those of a heart attack. If symptoms are strong and persistent, call 911 immediately.
Cardiologist Dr. Marcos Daccarett is a member of the team of cardiologists, surgeons and staff at St. Luke's Center for Heart and Vascular Health.