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According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common type of arrhythmia. An arrhythmia, also known as a dysrhythmia, is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm. AF occurs if rapid, disorganized electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers, called the atria, to fibrillate. The term “fibrillate” means to contract very fast and irregularly. In AF, blood pools in the atria and isn’t pumped completely into the heart’s two lower chambers, called the ventricles. As a result, the heart’s upper and lower chambers don’t work together as they should, and patients are at risk of low blood pressure, blood clots, and strokes. An estimated 2.7 million Americans are affected by atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation, or AF, is an irregular and often rapid heart rate, which happens when the two upper chambers of your heart experience chaotic electrical signals. AF is closely linked with age—the older we get, the higher our chance of developing it. It is quite rare for a young patient to develop AF, unless they have an underlying cardiovascular condition. While many causes of AF are known, there are cases in which the cause is not found. Here are the most common causes of AF:
Various chest infections and conditions can also increase risk of AF, like:
The following are risk factors for atrial fibrillation:
Diagnosis of AF usually begins with your physician’s review of your signs and symptoms, as well as your medical history. He or she will also conduct a physical exam. There are several diagnostic tests available:
AF may occur without symptoms, however, some people with AF experience one or more of the following symptoms:
Treatment can control AF. However, this condition tends to return, often getting worse when it does. It may return even with treatment. Because blood flow is interrupted and may become stagnant in a fibrillating atrium, there is increased risk of clot formation. Clots can then break off and travel to the brain can cause a stroke.
No matter what is causing your heart’s health to be compromised, there are things you can do to improve it:
Most heart diseases and risk factors contributing to heart diseases are screened for at regular physicals. The American Heart Association stresses the importance of regular screening for cardiovascular disease. American heart association volunteer and director of William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, Barry A. Franklin, Ph. D., said on the matter, “Regular cardiovascular screening is important because it helps you detect risk factors in their earliest stages. This way, you can treat the risk factor with lifestyle changes and pharmacotherapies, if appropriate, before it ultimately leads to the development of cardiovascular disease.”
Your doctor will most likely check the following:
If your doctor suspects you have a heart disease after a thorough examination, he or she may conduct several diagnostic tests to arrive at a diagnosis.
For healthy people, the following steps have been shown to help prevent or reduce the risk factors for heart disease. Keep in mind that reducing one risk factor may help reduce others:
Medications for AF include anticoagulants, antiplatelets, rate controllers, and rhythm controllers.
Anticoagulants Anticoagulants work by interfering with proteins involved in the clotting process, and are given to patients to prevent blood clot formation or to treat an existing blood clot. These include:
Side effects of anticoagulants include:
*** Because anticoagulants lengthen the time required to form a blood clot, patients taking anticoagulants are at a higher risk for excessive bleeding . Speak to your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking anticoagulants. It is especially important to take into consideration this potentially life threatening side effect.
Antiplatelet Antiplatelet medications work by stopping platelet cells from sticking together to form blood clots.
Side effects of antiplatelet medications include:
Heart-rate controlling medications These are drugs include beta blockers and are used to slow the heart rate. Most people can function and feel better if their heart rate is controlled. Beta blockers include:
Side effects of heart rate controlling medications include:
Calcium channel blockers This class of heart medication has multiple effects on the heart. Calcium channel blockers are used to slow the heart rate in patients with AF and to reduce the strength of the muscle cell’s contraction. Some calcium channel blockers include:
Side effects of calcium channel blockers include:
Digoxin This medication slows the rate at which electrical currents are conducted from the atria, the heart’s upper cavities, to the ventricles, the heart’s two main chambers.
Side effects of digoxin include:
The following list of supplements is offered by the University of Maryland Medical Center—always check with your cardiologist or primary doctor before adding supplements to your regimen for treating and preventing heart failure. Many people with heart conditions take multiple medications, including blood-thinning medications, blood pressure medications, and others. The supplements below may interact with these (and other medications) and may not be right for people with certain medical conditions.
Stress reduction practices. Since stress is associated with heart disease, it’s prudent to try techniques to help reduce it. The following methods have been shown to reduce stress in some people:
Being diagnosed with heart disease can be difficult for you and your family, but there are things you can do to make your life easier and healthier.
If you are being treated for atrial fibrillation, call your doctor if:
Call your doctor right away if you are taking blood thinning medication for AF and you have:
In addition to your primary care physician, you may want to include a cardiologist (heart specialist), and/or an electrophysiologist (a cardiologist that specialized in arrhythmias).
You will probably have different questions to ask your doctor depending on your heart condition. Be open about all your concerns. If you’re having difficulty focusing, bring along a friend or family member. Below you’ll find general questions you might want to ask your doctor about heart disease as suggested by the American Heart Association.
QUESTIONS ABOUT MEDICATION
QUESTIONS ABOUT DIET
QUESTIONS ABOUT EXERCISE
Behavior Change-Up for a Slimmer You
Extreme Exercise and Heart Health
A Narrow Escape
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