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WHAT IS ATRIAL FIBRILLATION?

Are you familiar with the term ‘A-fib’? Have you ever heard of it before? Whatever the case, here’s a breakdown of atrial fibrillation, a very common problem of heart rhythm or a cardiac arrhythmia. It would be useful to go over what it is and a few important atrial fibrillation symptoms and signs before we dive into the details. Let's also discuss potential atrial fibrillation treatment options. 

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What is Atrial Fibrillation or Afib?

The normal beating of the heart has a regular consistent pattern. Day in and day out. This is needed for the proper pumping function responsible for delivering blood consistently throughout the body.  In simplest terms, AFib is the erratic beating of the heart. The specific heart rhythm is called “irregularly irregular”. Now itself does not sound too great, does it? Approximately 1% of US adults have atrial fibrillation with men more than the females. If you get into the geriatric population 9% of people greater than 80 years old have atrial fibrillation. So it is estimated that 2.3 million adults in the US have AFib.

Why worry about Atrial Fibrillation?

In the case of atrial fibrillation, there is no regularity or consistency in the heartbeat. Now, this could spell trouble especially if the individual is not aware or is unable to notice the abnormal and irregular beating of the heart. This poses numerous dangers such as an increased propensity of developing a clot in the heart which can break off and clog blood vessels in the brain leading to a stroke or possibly even death! 

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Signs and symptoms of atrial fibrillation:

Here are 3 Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms that you should know about - Be aware to take action!

1- Palpitations

An attack of afib presenting as palpitations can happen at any moment. Normal persons especially at rest,  should not be feeling your heartbeat. However, with palpitations, you may feel hard heartbeats which could be irregular and rapid. You may feel your heart pounding away erratically and not in any regular set pattern. But the sensation may be so severe that it may take your breath away. It may produce a sense of urgency and anxiety. Some also relate this to a sense of impending doom.  In milder cases, a person may not fully appreciate but may notice a degree of discomfort or a funny feeling in the chest. So keep this in mind and don't take things lightly.

2- Shortness of breath

When the heart does not pump efficiently as in the case of an attack of atrial fibrillation,  it can lead to fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath. If your heart is unable to pump blood forwards it tends to back it up into your lungs. This leads to build-up of fluid in this vital organ which practically impairs lung function preventing any adequate exchange of gases. Basically, you cannot breathe. Now that does not sound too great, does it? Shortness of breath or ‘air hunger’ would be one of the most distressing sensations you will ever have in your life and it is one of the AFib symptoms to watch out for.

3- Dizziness or lightheadedness

Lightheadedness or dizziness is a fairly common atrial fibrillation symptom. The person feels that he or she may faint. Some patients describe it as weightlessness of the head. This happens in atrial fibrillation because of the poor blood supply which the brain receives with the erratic pumping of the heart. Younger individuals may not have it that bad, however, the older and sicker you get, you will start to feel much worse and more light headed. It is common to have people especially the elderly,  to fall down or even lose consciousness when they have an attack of atrial fibrillation. So something as benign as feeling light-headed could have potentially serious causes and complications. Usually, this happens when your heart rate exceeds any normal limits. The heart rate in atrial fibrillation having known to go beyond 130, 140 or even 160 or 170. This just goes to show that if you are having a combination of medical symptoms it may not be something you could pass on as unimportant.

4- A stroke!

A bonus symptom, but if you have this, it means you have already suffered the consequences. When the heart does not beat properly it leads to stagnation of blood, which can lead to clot formation. Now that could break off and travel with the blood into your brain and eventually clog one of those vessels. When this happens you lose blood supply to a portion of the brain, leading to neurological deficits that could range from total loss of function or could have localized symptoms such as trouble speaking or trouble swallowing or weakness or numbness of any part of the body. This surely is an alarm sign and a medical emergency and medical assistance are necessary. If you notice any of these yourself or any person around you, make sure to call an ambulance as soon as possible.

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Atrial Fibrillation Treatment? Can it be treated or cured?

One of the highly important considerations for atrial fibrillation treatment is whether the patient needs a blood thinning medication or not. The blood thinning medication basically works to thin the blood in an effort to prevent clot formation that can be dangerous and can lead to Strokes. Usually, younger people without many comorbidities may not need a blood thinning medication. Check with your doctor if you are one the lucky ones and can do without a blood thinner such as Coumadin or Eliquis or Xarelto and avoid the adverse effects that come with such drugs.

Now the other issue with afib is that your heart rate can get very high and that can be dangerous itself. Often pills are needed to keep the heart rate in check. So few things that your cardiologists will be talking to you about.

Since atrial fibrillation is a heart rhythm problem, some patients especially the young may benefit from procedures or drugs that can correct the irregular rhythm and bring it back into regularity called a sinus rhythm. Now, this may include a procedure called cardioversion or simply, on many occasions, drugs are all that is needed. However, this is a complicated topic and best to leave it to your cardiologist who would be able to make judgments based on your individual circumstance. There are so many factors that go into deciding what is best for the patient. If the symptoms are recurrent and the individual is young then the cardiologist may decide for a procedure. Nevertheless, like all medical interventions, there are always certain risks involved so that is a one-to-one discussion between you and your physician. There are modalities coming up as well which can specifically target the areas in the heart which are producing the abnormal electrical signals that are leading to atrial fibrillation, however, your individual circumstance will need a thorough assessment by a cardiologist.

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