5 Facts About Atrial Fibrillation

Tips for recognizing, living with and preventing this potentially dangerous heart condition
Stethoscope with ECG chart

A strong, healthy heart beats in a steady rhythm. But when our hearts beat too quickly, too slowly or in an irregular pattern, that's a potentially serious condition called an arrhythmia.

The most common arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation, or AFib, a fast and irregular heart rhythm that, left untreated, can lead to blood clots, stroke and heart failure.

Rush electrophysiologist Jeremiah Wasserlauf, MD, MS, who specializes in treating heart rhythm disorders, shares five facts about AFib — including tips to prevent or help manage this condition that affects at least 2.7 million Americans.

1. Some people with AFib don’t recognize they have symptoms.

Symptoms of AFib can include palpitations, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, extreme fatigue and chest pain. But some AFib episodes cause no symptoms at all.

“Everyone is different,” Wasserlauf says. “Some people have obvious symptoms of AFib and other people may experience very little. There are some people who realize, after treatment to restore normal rhythm, that they actually feel better and had been limiting their activity because of symptoms of AFib without realizing it.”

That's why Wasserlauf stresses the importance of regular visits with your primary care provider — and seeing a specialist if you've been diagnosed.

2. You can help prevent AFib by managing risk factors.

Risk factors for AFib include high blood pressure, obesity, moderate to heavy alcohol use, smoking, kidney disease, diabetes and heart disease.

To help manage your risk factors, Wasserlauf suggests maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding too much alcohol, and working with your doctors to keep any chronic medical problems under control.

Age, meanwhile, is actually the biggest risk factor. 

“Some risk factors for AFib are hereditary, some are acquired, and often both types of risk are contributing,” Wasserlauf says. “This means that you may have a family history that predisposes you to AFib or individual risk factors that cause you to develop the condition. But some people even in the best health will still be at risk due to age alone.”

3. AFib is related to strokes.

AFib is the culprit in about 1 in 7 strokes. That's because it can cause blood to pool in the heart's upper chambers and form clots — which may travel to the brain, block the flow of blood and lead to a stroke.

The risk of AFib-related stroke also increases with age, Wasserlauf says, and depends on your other risk factors.

“We find that strokes caused by AFib tend to be more severe than strokes from other causes,” he adds. “But fortunately, these strokes are preventable in most people, so it’s important to work closely with your doctor to make sure you are on the right treatments to be protected.”

4. Treatment options continue to evolve.

Treatments for AFib have become safer and more effective over the last 10 years. “The treatment options we have today allow people with AFib to live normal lives and not be limited or restricted by the condition,” Wasserlauf says.

Catheter ablation, for example, is a minimally invasive outpatient procedure that uses hot or cold energy to treat areas of the heart responsible for atrial fibrillation and restore a normal heart rhythm. In the best candidates, ablation can reduce a person’s time in AFib by over 98%.

Medications such as blood thinners (to prevent strokes) have also become more effective and manageable, he says, no longer requiring dietary restrictions or frequent monitoring and dose adjustments.

But some people with AFib may be unable to take blood thinners, particularly those who have a history of internal bleeding or frequent falls. An alternative is the WATCHMAN implant, a minimally invasive, one-time procedure to close off the left atrial appendage — a small pouch connected to the upper left chamber of the heart where clots form.

“The treatment options for AFib continue to progress forward, and as a provider, it’s rewarding to see how much better people can feel,” Wasserlauf says.

5. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is key.

Lifestyle adjustments can help prevent problems that complicate AFib, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and can improve the response to treatments for AFib.

Here are a few tips to help manage your AFib:

  • Exercise regularly. “Exercise is healthy for people with AFib,” Wasserlauf says. “And if people have worsening symptoms due to exercise, such as a racing heart, that’s where we step in to help control their AFib better and enable them to exercise without restrictions.” He suggests engaging in 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, such as jogging, biking or walking.
  • Eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight. A diet designed for people with heart disease can be helpful for people with AFib. The American Heart Association suggests focusing your diet on fruits and vegetables and include foods that are low in sodium.
  • Monitor your alcohol intake. People who drink heavily, or binge drink, are more likely to experience an AFib episode. Wasserlauf recommends sticking to one alcoholic beverage per day or less.
  • Manage other health conditions, such as sleep apnea, high blood pressure, diabetes, among others.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking has toxic effects on all aspects of the heart including the rhythm. Talk to your doctor about ways to quit smoking.
  • Manage stress levels. “An increased level of stress on the body can worsen AFib symptoms,” Wasserlauf says. “Regular yoga or mindfulness practice can help reduce and manage your stress levels, and has been shown to improve AFib.”

Taylor Hisey Pierson is a content strategist at Rush University Medical Center.

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