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How Serious is AFib?

Until recently, Todd Stogner, a fit, 40-something, digital marketer based in Oklahoma City, never knew danger lurked in his heart. He felt no pain, discomfort or any irregularities. If he hadn’t torn a rotator cuff that required surgery a few months ago, he might never have learned he suffered from Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), which puts him at risk for a stroke or heart failure.

“When I had shoulder surgery back in April, they told me I was in AFib right after the surgery. A cardiologist even came to see me while I was still in the recovery room,” Stogner says. “I did not know I was at risk. But later I learned that it can be hereditary and that my dad has experienced issues, too.”

AFib is a condition in which the heart has a “quivering,” rapid or irregular heart rate. An estimated 2.7 million Americans have AFib and are at risk for blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. 

While some patients describe AFib as their heart skipping a beat or banging against their chest, others can experience light-headedness, weakness, nausea or no symptoms at all.

What happens when your heart is in AFib?

According to the American Heart Association, instead of contracting and relaxing at a regular beat, the heart’s upper chambers beat chaotically and irregularly. This causes the blood to move less effectively into the ventricles of the heart. A major concern with AFib is the potential to develop blood clots within the upper chambers of the heart. 

Untreated AFib can double the risk of heart-related deaths and is linked with a dramatically increased risk for stroke. In fact, research shows up to 20 percent of people who suffer a stroke have this kind of heart arrhythmia. Yet many people are unaware they have the condition.

“My cardiologist believes I’ve had AFib for quite some time and that my body has adapted to it,” Stogner says. “Since I’m not experiencing symptoms, he is not too concerned, but he has put me on medication to see if that will regulate my heartbeat.” 

Know the risks of AFib

Identifying your risk of AFib can be tricky because many people have no symptoms and are unaware of their condition until it's discovered during an examination. However, common signs and symptoms include:

  • Palpitations, sensations of a racing, uncomfortable, irregular heartbeat or a flip-flopping in your chest
  • Weakness
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

AFib may be:

Occasional – AFib can sometimes occur as “paroxysmal atrial fibrillation” which is intermittent AFib. The symptoms come and go, usually lasting for a few minutes to hours, with your heartbeat returning to normal within seven days. You may not need treatment with this type of AFib, but you should see a doctor. Often, it becomes a permanent condition that needs regular treatment.

Persistent Persistent AFib is an irregular heartbeat that lasts longer than a week. Often, medications or a low-voltage current called electrical cardioversion are used to reset the heart’s normal rhythm. 

Long-standing persistent – This means your AFib has lasted longer than a year and doesn’t go away. In this case, medications and electric currents may not stop the AFib.  Doctors may use another type of treatment, such as ablation (which burns certain areas of your heart’s electrical system) to restore your normal heart rhythm.

Permanent – In this type of AFib, the abnormal heart rhythm can't be restored. You'll have atrial fibrillation permanently, and you'll often require medications to control your heart rate and to prevent blood clots.

AFib is usually caused by a structural abnormality in the heart, but can also be caused by high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, an overactive thyroid, viral infections, sleep apnea, stress or stimulants like caffeine, tobacco or medications.

Seek treatment if you feel something is off

If you suspect you may have AFib, it’s important to ask your doctor for a test to confirm the condition. 

Your doctor may order several tests to diagnose your condition. These might include electrocardiograms, echocardiograms or a Holter monitor that records your heart activity. 

Treating the atrial fibrillation depends on how long you’ve had the disorder and how serious the symptoms are. As mentioned, your doctor may be able to reset your heart to its regular rhythm using a procedure called cardioversion, which is done either by electrical cardioversion or cardioversion with medications.

You may also be put on warfarin or other blood-thinners to reduce your risk for blood clots prior to the cardioversion and anti-arrhythmic medications to help prevent future episodes of AFib.

Beta-blockers, calcium-channel blockers and Digoxin can also be used to control how fast your heart beats and restore it to a normal rate. 

If you think you may have AFib, it is critical that you make an appointment with your health care provider.  If atrial fibrillation is found early, your treatment may be easier and more effective. Visit the INTEGRIS web page for more information about AFib and your treatment options. 

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