Ellen* wasn't sure if the crazy thumping in her chest was just heart palpitations from stress, from working out, or if it was something worse. She sometimes felt a little short of breath, but because her symptoms improved within a few minutes, she tried not to worry about it. Sometimes though, in the middle of the night, she couldn't sleep because deep down she was worried about her heart.
Ellen's heart had been beating erratically for years, but because she was so busy caring for her family and elderly in-laws she just didn't have time to make an appointment for her own physical exam. Ellen mentioned her crazy heart beat to a friend one day, who insisted that she see a cardiologist immediately, which is when Ellen's AFib was diagnosed.
Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation
- A feeling that your heart is beating strangely or fluttering
- A sudden awareness of being able to feel your heart beating
- A feeling of chest pain, discomfort or pressure
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Inability to exercise
Not everyone has all of these symptoms. If you or someone you know is experiencing any combination of these symptoms, please do contact your health care provider immediately. And, if you're having chest pain, Call 9-1-1.
What causes Atrial Fibrillation?
Basically, with atrial fibrillation the 2 atria or top chambers of the heart beat rapidly and irregularly. They are beating so fast that they almost vibrate or fibrillate. This ultra-rapid beating does 2 things.
First, it means that the 2 lower chambers of the heart, the ventricles don't receive electrical signals to beat at the same synchronized rate. The upper chambers and the lower chambers of the heart then aren't coordinated.
It also means that the blood from the atria doesn't get pumped to the 2 ventricles of the heart efficiently. It all adds up to a number of different consequences, including a higher risk of developing a blood clot as well as an increased risk of stroke.
Increased risk of Stroke
Many people with AFib are surprised to learn that while they only notice crazy heart beats once in awhile, they actually have many more episodes that they don't notice. According to the American Heart Association, people with AFib have a 5x additional risk for stroke.
There are many different treatment options available for patients that depend upon each person's unique situation.
- Medications to reduce the risk of blood clots
- Medications to help alter the heart's electrical rhythm
- Maze procedure – a type of heart surgery that interrupts the electrical signals that are causing the 2 upper chambers of the heart to beat so fast.
- Electrophysiology and Ablation
Ablation for AFib
With ablation, highly trained cardiologists, known as electrophysiologists are able to thread a special catheter to the area where the nerve cells that are causing the irregular heart beat are treated with a short pulse of electricity. This ablates or deactivates those cells. This is a very precise procedure and new developments with 3-D mapping combined with CT scanning (known as a merging process or registration) makes this a much safer procedure.
Ellen is now on medication to decrease her risk of stroke and has regular monitoring of her heart. She is exercising, caring for her family and now reports that she is sleeping better because she now knows what's going on and she's doing everything she can to take care of herself and her family.
*Ellen is not her real name.
This story first appeared in the February 2015 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.