Atrial fibrillation occurs when the top chambers of the heart beat erratically, causing an irregular, chaotic heart beat. While it's not life threatening, if left untreated this common condition can lead to more serious problems such as stroke or congestive heart failure.
There's a misconception that atrial fibrillation will go away over time, but it does not. It is also dangerous to ignore the condition or accept it as part of aging. There's a saying that atrial fibrillation begets atrial fibrillation, meaning the longer the condition exists, the more difficult it is to cure. Early steps to restore your heart to a regular rhythm are most likely to be successful so it's important to see a doctor if you have any symptoms of the condition, which can range from:
Loss of consciousness
Shortness of breath
Unexplained swelling in the lower extremity
A normal heart contracts and relaxes regularly according to electric signals generated from within. In atrial fibrillation, the two small upper chambers of the heart, or atria, beat too fast. When the top chamber is beating irregularly, your heart does not pump as strongly which impacts how your body gets the oxygen and the energy that it needs.
The irregular beating can cause scarring or enlargement of the heart and lead to congestive heart failure. It also can cause clots to develop, which could travel to your brain and cause a stroke.
Because people are living longer, there are more cases of atrial fibrillation. Age is the most common cause of the condition, but it can occur in young people, too.
People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sleep apnea, uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetes and who are morbidly obese have the greatest risk of developing atrial fibrillation.
The best way to prevent the condition is by eating a low fat diet, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and managing conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.
Atrial fibrillation is easily diagnosed with an electrocardiogram (EKG).
If you are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a cardiologist or electrophysiologist, a specialist who treats abnormal rhythms of the heart, will perform a cardioversion to restore your heart to its normal rhythm as a first step.
Cardioversion typically is an outpatient procedure. If your normal rhythm is restored, the specialist will develop an ongoing treatment plan that may include medication and or additional procedures, such as ablation, to maintain your normal heart rhythm. Blood thinners often are prescribed to prevent clotting that could lead to a stroke.
The goal for most patients with atrial fibrillation is to be restored to a normal heart rhythm without medication. Your cardiologist or electrophysiologist will help you weigh the risks and benefits of all available treatments.
Ablation is a very effective treatment for atrial fibrillation. The non-surgical procedure is performed by an electrophysiologist to short circuit the electrical signal that's causing the irregular heartbeats.
Ablation of atrial fibrillation is done in an electrophysiology laboratory in the hospital by a highly skilled team of professionals working alongside the electrophysiologist.
Catheter ablation usually takes between two and six hours. Ablation has a 70-percent cure rate the first time it is performed. Sometimes a second ablation procedure is needed, and this has a 90-percent cure rate.
Today there are more options for treating atrial fibrillation than ever before. Timing is important. Be proactive and address your symptoms of atrial fibrillation with a doctor right away.
Morcos is an electrophysiologist with Susquehanna Health's Heart and Vascular Institute.