Jul 06, 2016 1:00 AM

Author: Libby Mitchell

It’s a very common condition that can lead to serious complications, and many of those who have it may not even know it. Atrial fibrillation is a rhythm disorder of the heart characterized by extra heartbeats in the upper chambers of the heart. It is the most common cardiac rhythm disorder. “Atrial fibrillation is more common as you get older,” says John Ryan, MD, a cardiologist with University of Utah Health. “Over the age of 70, about 10 percent of people could have it.”

While many people may have atrial fibrillation, few may be aware of it. The condition is often silent, meaning that there are no easily identifiable symptoms. There are some cases where a patient may be lightheaded, or have shortness of breath, but most often, atrial fibrillation isn’t noticed until it is picked up during a doctor’s appointment. The doctor may notice an irregular pulse and then can confirm the condition with an EKG.

“The concern is that atrial fibrillation may not be caught until it leads to a larger problem,” says Ryan. Patients with atrial fibrillation are at high risk for stroke and heart disease. In some instances, the condition is only discovered after a patient has suffered a stroke and is being treated for that.

If caught before complications arise, there are many effective treatments for atrial fibrillation that work quite well. Patients may be put on blood thinners to help prevent clots from forming and possibly causing stroke. They may also be put on medications to control their heart rate. “The goal is to get the heart back into a normal sinus rhythm,” says Ryan. “Medication can do this, or it also can be done with a shock to the heart.”

It is possible for a patient to fall back into atrial fibrillation after their heart sinus rhythm has been restored. “Sometimes people have to be shocked a couple of times to get the heart rhythm steady,” says Ryan. “In other cases, they may need to undergo an ablation procedure to try and break up the electrical circuits in the heart associated with atrial fibrillation.”

Atrial fibrillation patients and those at risk for the condition should make some lifestyle changes to eliminate risk factors. “If a person is suffering from sleep apnea or high blood pressure, they may have atrial fibrillation or, at the very least, be at risk,” says Ryan. “People with a high alcohol intake are at risk as well.”

All three of those factors can be eliminated with either medication or behavior modifications.

“Atrial fibrillation is common, but should be taken seriously,” says Ryan. “Take action before you are at risk by keeping your heart healthy.” 

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