The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 12.1 million Americans will be living with AFib by 2030. But how much do you know about this increasingly common heart condition or heart rhythm disorders overall?

While millions of Americans may have an irregular heartbeat, some may not even realize it’s present – or fully understand the condition if they have it.

What is arrythmia?

The heart’s electrical system is what controls your heart rate, or the number of times it beats per minute. On average the heart beats between 60 and 100 times per minute; and, with every beat, it’s circulating blood through the chambers and valves of the heart and onto the rest of the body.

This perfectly timed process is reliant on the heart’s electrical system for triggers. However, when there’s an issue with the electrical system, it can cause the heart to beat abnormally – too fast, too slow or irregularly.

In some cases, temporary arrhythmias can occur in healthy hearts as a result of everyday factors, including consuming caffeine or alcohol, as well as heightened emotional states. When the arrhythmia becomes persistent or does not go way, it should be evaluated by a cardiologist.

The most common type of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, also known as Afib.

What Is AFib?

Atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia that causes a quivering or irregular heartbeat.

When your heart is operating normally, the heart contracts and relaxes in a regular rhythm. This moves blood efficiently through the heart’s chambers and on to the rest of the body.

When you experience AFib, the upper chambers of the heart—called the atria—quiver rather than beating effectively. This impedes the flow of blood into the lower chambers of the heart, the ventricles. 

Because it disrupts blood flow, AFib can increase your risk for developing blood clots, stroke, and heart failure, among other conditions.

Who’s at Risk for AFib?

People of all ages, genders and races are at risk of developing AFib. In fact, the condition is becoming more and more common. While several million Americans have atrial fibrillation currently, health experts expect that number to rise significantly in the next decade.

While there’s no way to prevent every case of AFib, knowing your risk can help you talk with your doctor about ways to safeguard your health. You may be at a higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation if:

  • You’re of advanced age.
    While children can develop AFib in rare instances, the condition is much more likely as you get older.
  • You have a family history of AFib.
    As with most conditions, your risk increases if an immediate family member has atrial fibrillation.
  • You’re an athlete.
    This factor might seem odd, but AFib is actually common among those who are physically active. It’s triggered by a rapid heart rate called supraventricular tachycardia.
  • You have chronic health issues.
    Your risk is higher if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, sleep apnea, or asthma.
  • You have an underlying heart disease.
    This can include valve problems, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or a history of heart attack. Atrial fibrillation can also occur after heart surgery.
  • You drink an excessive amount of alcohol.
    Drinking more than a moderate amount—one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men—increases your risk. But binge drinking is especially dangerous. That’s defined as having four or more drinks in a two-hour span if a woman, or five or more drinks in two hours if a man.
What are the symptoms of AFib?

Oftentimes, there are no noticeable symptoms with AFib, or they may be intermittent/infrequent symptoms. In some cases, arrhythmias can be extremely dangerous, even an emergency. Because of this, it’s extremely important to work with your cardiologist if you experience any of the following or are at an increased risk of developing it. A few symptoms you may notice as a part of AFib, include:

  • Fatigue (especially with activity)
  • Elevated/racing heartbeat with no increase in activity
  • Heart palpitations (Thumping, fluttering, flopping or pounding in the chest)
  • Confusion
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Feeling sweaty
  • Shortness of breath
Why do patients with AFib have to take blood thinners?

Having AFib increases a person’s risk of stroke by five fold, with some patients having even higher risk due to other conditions and factors. The reason that AFib increases this risk is because AFib can prevent the left atrium of the heart from contracting the way it normally would, leaving blood to pool and become static. That sluggish, unmoving blood can turn into a clot, which can break off and block any of the pathways where the heart sends blood up to the brain. That blockage is what we cause a stroke, and it can cause death or permanent brain damage. 

How is AFib Diagnosed?

There are a variety of effective tests your cardiologist may use to detect and diagnose AFib, or another type of arrhythmia. One of the most common is an electrocardiogram, which is a test that has leads that attach to the chest to monitor and track the heart’s electrical impulses.

For patients who have inconsistent symptoms or those that come and go, your cardiologist may recommend a type of Holter Monitor or Event Monitor, which will track your heart’s rhythm for a longer period.

  • Holter Monitor (24-hour and 48-hour):
    This type of test is essentially a portable electrocardiogram. The device is worn for either a 24-hour or 48-hour interval, and during that time, it records the electrical activity of the heart. Holter monitoring is often recommended to help make or confirm a diagnosis of a heart health issue such as an arrythmia.
  • Cardiac Event Monitor:
    This test works similarly to Holter monitoring, but has two main differences. It does not record electrical activity continuously; instead, it is often set to record when an abnormal heart rhythm is detected. This type of monitor is also worn for longer periods of time.

AFib Treatment

When it comes to treating arrhythmias or AFib, there are several different options and therapies available. Depending on your diagnoses and other health factors, your electrophysiologist may recommend the following:

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle:
    • Limit caffeine and alcohol
    • Don’t smoke
    • Manage sleep apnea or sleep disorders
    • Get routine exercise
    • Monitor side effects of other medications
  • Prescription Medications
  • Catheter ablation
    This minimally-invasive procedure involves inserting a catheter through a blood vessel, often in the groin, and threading it up to the heart. From there, cold or hot therapy is used on the tissue of the heart to interrupt and stop the stray electrical signals causing arrhythmia.
  • Maze procedure
    A type of heart surgery, our cardiovascular and thoracic surgeons perform this technique through a robotic surgery approach. Like a catheter ablation, it involves cold therapy (cryoablation), but offers a more comprehensive approach for patients with more advanced AFib or for those who haven’t seen success through other procedures.
  • Watchman
    An device implanted through a minimally-invasive, catheter-based procedure, Watchman helps reduce the risk of strokes due to AFib.  

Why Choose Georgia Heart Institute?

As a part of the state’s most forward-thinking heart & vascular program, Georgia Heart Institute offers access to a complete team of highly-trained experts, led by electrophysiologists, that all specialize diagnosing, treating and effectively managing heart rhythm disorders. With access to the latest diagnostic tests and treatment technology, you’ll receive an extremely precise and accurate diagnosis and a customized treatment to keep your heart at its healthiest.

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