Afib stands for atrial fibrillation. It occurs when the heart's two upper chambers fail to coordinate smoothly with the heart's two lower chambers, called the ventricles. Afib should not be confused with Vfib or ventricular fibrillation.
While Afib can be serious, it's more often a treatable chronic condition. Because it involves the heart's lower chambers, which are more directly involved with blood flow to the body, Vfib can cause loss of consciousness and death if not immediately treated with defibrillation, which restores normal heart rhythm.
There are four basic types of Afib:
Paroxysmal Afib begins without warning and stops on its own within a week at most. Persistent Afib occurs when the condition lasts longer than one week. Long-standing persistent Afib is that which has continued for more than one year. If the condition persists despite treatment, it's called permanent Afib.
Conditions Linked to Afib
There are a number of medical conditions that may contribute to the development of Afib:
Women are more likely to develop serious problems with Afib than men are. One of the main problems with Afib for both sexes is that it increases the risk of stroke. This increased risk to due to the fact that Afib may cause blood to pool in the heart's ventricle chambers. This pooling blood is more prone to develop clots when compared to moving blood. If a clot occurs, it can pass through the ventricles, enter the circulation and lodge in the lung, legs or brain. If a clot blocks blood flow to the brain, a stroke may occur.
This measurement of blood in the ventricles after each heartbeat is called the ejection fraction or EF. A healthy heart will typically show an EF of 50 to 70 percent. An EF of 40 percent or below is highly suggestive of heart failure.
Symptoms of Afib
Afib doesn't necessarily produce symptoms, but when it does, they will likely include the following:
These symptoms are non-specific and could be caused by many other conditions. Only a medical professional can evaluate your symptoms and tell you for sure what is causing them. It's important not to ignore possible symptoms of Afib, because if you do have it, it increases your chances of a stroke by about five times when compared to someone without Afib. Afib also increases your chances of developing heart failure. Women with Afib are more likely to have a stroke from it and are also more likely to die from that stroke than men are.
To diagnose Afib, your doctor will perform a physical exam, take a medical history and ask you about your symptoms. An electrocardiogram or EKG will be ordered to evaluate your heart's rhythm and electrical activity. You may also have to wear a kind of portable EKG called a Holter monitor. This is a wearable EKG that will monitor your heart's activity for a period of several days to give your doctor a better idea of your cardiac function over time.
An echocardiogram is a non-invasive test that gives a more detailed picture of heart function than an EKG can. The echocardiogram produces actual images of your heart and also measures your ejection fraction. An echocardiogram is painless and simple for the patient to do. The technician uses special leads to attach you to the machine, and then you just sit quietly until the technician is finished.
A chest Xray and blood tests give your doctor more information to help him or her to make an accurate diagnosis.
Treatment for Afib typically involves the following:
Medications prescribed for Afib generally do two things: They normalize the heart's rhythm and reduce the risk of a stroke. Medicines for heart rhythm may include beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers and digoxin, which is sometimes called digitalis.
Other medications, such as warfarin, reduce the blood's ability to clot. This in turn reduces the possibility that a clot will form in the heart's ventricles. Some of these blood-thinning medications come with dietary restrictions; some do not. If you're advised to avoid certain foods due to your Afib medication, be sure you do so. If you do not, serious complications could result because some foods can increase the activity of warfarin to a dangerous degree.
Ablation is an outpatient cardiac procedure. When successful, it can greatly improve unpleasant symptoms. In this procedure, you are sedated, and the doctor threads a thin tube called a catheter from an incision in your groin up through the blood vessels to your heart. The catheter stops at a point in your heart's upper chamber where special cells located there initiate the heartbeat. In Afib, these cells malfunction and do not begin their electrical signal the way they should. The doctor then uses radiofrequency energy to destroy part of the problem area. This helps to interrupt the abnormal electrical signals initiated by the cells, restoring a more normal rhythm.
A Healthy Heart Lifestyle
You can't prevent Afib entirely, but you may be able to reduce your risk by keeping your weight, blood sugar, and blood pressure within normal limits. Reduce your intake of saturated fats and avoid trans fats entirely. Refined sugar and processed foods should be reduced as much as possible. Smoking, lack of exercise, and heavy alcohol intake may also increase your risk. Small changes in lifestyle choices now may pay off in big health benefits in the future.