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Suspect an Irregular Heartbeat? Let Your Doctor Know

Suspect an Irregular Heartbeat? Let Your Doctor Know
Lourdes Health System: Health Talk Online | September 2014

A lack of rhythm may embarrass you on the dance floor, but when it comes to your heart, slipping out of sync has much more serious consequences.

Hospitalizations for a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation — or Afib, for short — increased about 23 percent between 2000 and 2010. In all, the condition sent nearly 4 million Americans to hospital beds during that time. That’s according to a new study in the journal Circulation.

Older, Sicker Population Has More Heart Troubles

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heartbeat. It is a sign of a problem in the heart’s electrical system, and it greatly increases the risk for stroke.

“With atrial fibrillation, the hearts regular rhythm is replaced by chaotic electrical activity in the the heart’s upper two chambers. As the upper chambers fibrillate, they quiver and stop squeezing normally. When this happens, blood does not move as smoothly through the heart, and when blood stops moving it can form blood clots,” said George Mark, MD, FACC FHRS, an electrophysiologist (heart rhythm specialist) with The Heart House. “If a clot is pumped into the bloodstream, it can lead to stroke.”

The risk of Afib increases with age, especially after age 60. Experts estimate that 10 percent of people 80 and older have Afib. And as the population ages, more people than ever are at risk.

In addition to age, causes of Afib include:

  • Heart disease, including valve problems and a history of heart attacks or heart surgery
  • High blood pressure
  • An overactive thyroid
  • Sleep apnea
  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol or caffeine use
  • Use of diet pills or cough and cold medicines
  • Family history

Watch for These Red Flags

Afib is sometimes discovered when a patient is being treated for another condition. When symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • A pounding, fluttering or racing feeling in the chest
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

“People with untreated Afib have five times the risk of having a stroke as those with a regular heartbeat,” said Dr. Mark. “If you have any symptoms of Afib, talk with your doctor. If you have chest pain, seek emergency assistance. You could be having a heart attack.”

Restoring Your Rhythm

A number of treatments are available for Afib, including medicines and lifestyle changes.

“If medications do not work, your doctor may suggest cardioversion, in which a controlled electrical shock is delivered to the heart to restore normal rhythm,” said Dr. Mark.

“Another option,” said Dr. Mark, “is a minimally invasive procedure aimed at addressing the root causes of atrial fibrillation. This procedure, called ablation, is performed by maneuvering a catheter from the veins of the leg, up to the heart, in order to identify and destroy the sources of the arrhythmia with either heat energy or freezing. Modern advances in catheter technology have improved both procedural success and safety, which has led more patients than ever before to seek a curative approach.”

To learn more about heart rhythm disorders, visit, www.lourdesnet.org/programs-and-services/heart-and-vascular-care/electrophysiology-heart-rhythm/.

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