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Signs of atrial fibrillation

A potentially serious, but treatable heart condition

For most of us, our heart beats so rhythmically that we take it for granted. But at least three million Americans have a potentially serious heart rhythm condition called atrial fibrillation (AFib).

During AFib, the two upper chambers of the heart quiver irregularly (fibrillate) rather than beat efficiently. This can increase heart rate and disturb the normal flow of blood inside the heart, raising the risk of blood clots that can lead to stroke. By making the heart beat fast, AFib can also contribute to a weakening of the heart muscle, which can lead to heart failure.

Anyone can have AFib, but chances increase as you get older or if you have other conditions such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea, obesity, diabetes, heart failure or heavy alcohol use. The best way to reduce your chances for AFib and maximize what we call “atrial health” is to lose weight, exercise, keep your diabetes in check and get a good night’s sleep.

Some signs of AFib are hard to ignore: a racing or irregular heartbeat, dizziness, fatigue or trouble breathing. However, almost a quarter of Americans with AFib have no symptoms at all. 

It’s crucial to seek treatment for AFib even if you don’t have symptoms. Many patients with AFib need to be on blood thinners to lower the risk of stroke, and all AFib patients should talk with their health care providers about other ways to reduce the risk of stroke. Your doctor also might prescribe medicines that help slow your heart rate or regulate the heart’s rhythm. Another option is cardioversion, a noninvasive procedure that shocks your heart to restore its normal rhythm. 

When other treatments aren’t effective, your doctor might recommend more invasive procedures, such as catheter ablation or a procedure called maze, which attempts to “short circuit” the inappropriate electrical signals causing AFib.

The most important first step is knowing whether you have AFib. If you think you might be at risk, make an appointment with your doctor or cardiologist today.

Dr. Susan Smyth is medical director of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute. 

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