Be Still My Heart

Ask The Experts

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by Payson Regional Medical Center staff

A fluttering heart isn’t always romantic — it can also be a sign of a health condition called atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat, is a common heart condition affecting around 2.2 million people in the United States. While the condition, on its own, generally is not life-threatening, it can be a significant risk factor for stroke — a leading cause of death and disability.

Approximately 15 percent of strokes — 75,000 to 100,000 each year — are caused by untreated atrial fibrillation, but many people don’t know what atrial fibrillation is or if they have it.

Atrial fibrillation, a disorder involving the speed and rhythm of the heartbeat, occurs when the upper chambers of the heart do not contract in proper synchronization with the lower chambers. This fibrillation (or quivering) of the heart’s upper chambers, instead of a steady, full contraction, produces a rapid and irregular heart rate. A healthy heart contracts 60 to 80 times per minute, but the upper chambers of a fibrillating heart quiver 300 to 400 times a minute. According to the American Heart Association, a heart with atrial fibrillation operates “as though it’s enduring a marathon, even if the patient is relaxing in a chair.”

This irregular beating pattern means that the heart is not properly pumping blood, which can result in poor blood flow, blood pooling in the heart’s chambers, and the potential for blood clots to form — a stroke risk. People with atrial fibrillation have five times the stroke risk of the general population.

Some people with atrial fibrillation have no symptoms at all; others may have the following symptoms:

• Rapid, irregular heartbeat

• Fluttering, “flopping” or thumping sensation in the chest

• Fatigue, especially when exercising

• Lightheadedness or dizziness

• Shortness of breath

• Fainting

• Anxiety

• Confusion

• Excessive sweating

• Chest pain or pressure

Atrial fibrillation may only happen periodically, with symptoms that come and go or it may be a chronic, long-term condition. The risk of developing atrial fibrillation increases with age. Men tend to develop the condition more often than women, but women with atrial fibrillation have a higher risk of stroke than men do.

Even though a stroke occurs in the brain, heart health plays an important role in helping to prevent stroke. The most common cause of atrial fibrillation is long-term, uncontrolled high blood pressure and heart disease. A broad range of other triggers can contribute to atrial fibrillation, from certain health conditions to lifestyle choices: heart disease, hyperthyroidism, emphysema, asthma, obesity, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, excess alcohol consumption, smoking or caffeine use, and even extreme stress or fatigue.

The good news is, atrial fibrillation — and its associated stroke risk — can be reduced by taking good care of your heart. This may range from simply cutting back on caffeine, to addressing an existing health condition such as an overactive thyroid. Lifestyle remedies that you can implement on your own include eating a healthy diet, being more active, losing excess weight, and taking steps to lower high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

If you are experiencing symptoms, or concerned about your risk, talk with your doctor. The right treatment is different for each person, and may be as simple as visiting your physician regularly for heart rate monitoring, or may require daily medication to control symptoms and prevent complications. In other cases medical devices (such as a pacemaker) or surgery to repair the heart’s electrical system and return it to a normal rhythm may be necessary.

Sources: American Heart Association, www.heart.org, American Stroke Association, www.stroke.org, National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute, www.nhlbi.nih.gov, Everyday Health, www.everydayhealth.com.

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