One of the most common—and least detected—heart conditions is called atrial fibrillation. About 2.2 million people have this arrhythmia, but it often goes undiagnosed until another medical condition prompts an ECG or other cardiovascular electronic monitoring. It’s important to catch the condition, because it can increase a patient’s risk for heart attack and stroke.
What’s the Risk?
Although not all arrhythmia patients need treatment, most atrial fibrillation patients require medical attention. That’s because atrial fibrillation raises a patient’s risk for other health complications to a greater extent than other arrhythmias do.
Atrial fibrillation occurs when the atria (upper chambers) of the heart simply quiver, rather than beat. The result: the heart’s valves don’t completely seal, and blood isn’t pumped efficiently. As the arrhythmia worsens, blood begins to pool in the heart’s chambers, increasing the risk for clots. Once clots form, they can cause a heart attack--or travel to the brain and cause a stroke.
Atrial Fibrillation Treatments
Patients who are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation often suffer from other heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease. These conditions can diminish the heart’s ability to beat properly, contributing to the development of atrial fibrillation. Doctors will work not only to reverse the arrhythmia, but also to treat any other cardiovascular conditions.
- Prescription medication is usually the first recourse for treating atrial fibrillation. The cardiologist will choose a medication that works best for the patient, based on any other health concerns or medical conditions.
- If medication doesn’t work, the next step is often electrical cardioversion. During this procedure, carefully controlled electric shocks are delivered to the muscles in the heart. These override the electrical pulses that come from the brain, “reprogramming” the heartbeat.
- The doctor may choose to follow up electrical cardioversion with drugs that are delivered intravenously (through an IV). This is done only in a medically supervised situation, and is a short-term treatment option.
- Another treatment option, radiofrequency ablation works by killing the tissue that sends the signal for the irregular beat. The cardiologist inserts a catheter into the patient’s artery and delivers a burst of radioelectricity to the tissue.
- Some patients whose atrial fibrillation recurs after other treatments may be candidates for surgery or the placement of a pacemaker.
Meanwhile, the doctor works with each patient to create a treatment program that addresses other medical concerns. The program may include cardiac rehabilitation, to strengthen and protect the muscles of the heart; regular monitoring via EKG; counseling on exercise and nutrition; or prescription medications.
If you have questions about atrial fibrillation or cardiovascular health, call Consult-a-Nurse® at 1-800-382-3522 to make an appointment with one of our Cardiologists.