An estimated 2.7 to 6.1 million people living in the United States have atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC). However, these numbers are expected to increase remarkably over the next ten years. The condition tends to worsen over time and lead to life-altering complications, if left untreated. With effective treatment, healthy lifestyle changes and medications, the individual can live a normal, active life.
Atrial fibrillation or AFib for short is an irregular heartbeat that decreases the heart’s ability to pump efficient blood through the body, causing hypoxemia, oxygen deficiency of the blood. The heart has four chambers, two ventricles (lower chambers) and two atria (upper chambers). The heart will beat rapidly and erratically so much so that it becomes inefficient. During atrial fibrillation, the two atria will beat rapidly, erratically and out of sync with the two ventricles, which can lead to a 25 percent reduction in cardiac output.
Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms
Sometimes AFib will remain asymptomatic (showing no symptoms), but the majority of people will report a variety of symptoms, including fatigue, dyspnea (shortness of breath), heart palpitations, angina, syncope, confusion and vertigo (dizziness). AFib may be occasional, persistent, long-standing persistent or permanent.
Atrial Fibrillation Risks
AFib itself is not fatal, but its complications can be. The most dangerous complication of atrial fibrillation is stroke, which occurs when a blood clot forms, dislodges from the heart and travels to the brain, blocking the blood flow to the brain. A fragment of the clot can also be just as dangerous. Heart failure is another complication of AFib, a condition where the heart cannot circulate the sufficient amount blood to meet the body’s needs.
Atrial Fibrillation Treatment Options
Proper treatment will be determined by how often the individual exhibits symptoms, have a history of heart disease and the severity of the symptoms. General treatment options include, lifestyle changes, medicines (antiarrhythmic drugs) and medical procedures, including electrical cardioversion, catheter ablation, AV node ablation and maze procedure. Anticoagulants, blood thinners, will also be required to decrease or prevent coagulation of blood and prolong the clotting time.
A pacemaker may need to be placed in the abdomen or chest to help control irregular heart rhythms. The device utilizes electrical pulses to prompt the heart to beat in regular rhythm.
An umbrella-shaped device that was recently approved by the FDA, the WATCHMAN, is a great alternative to long-term anticoagulants and for individuals with a high risk for strokes. The device is implanted into the left atrial appendage to seal it off, so blood cannot coagulate and break free into the arteries.