Atrial Fibrillation

What is it? How can you deal with it?

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most frequent type of arrhythmia: it is a problem in the frequency or rhythm of the patient’s heartbeat in which the heart beats too fast or has an irregular pace. The AF happens when there are disorganized electrical signals that cause a contraction or tremor of the muscular fibers (fibrils) in the atria, the two uppermost chambers of the heart. When a patient suffers from AF, the strength of the heart’s contraction is less than it should be. Hence, there’s a buildup of blood that can cause clots. If these clots are dislodged, they can travel to the brain, where they can get stuck in the arteries, block the blood flow and cause a stroke: an episode that causes anomalies in neurological function and lasts more than 24 hours. AF can be short-lived, with symptoms that appear and disappear, and there are even some episodes that resolve themselves naturally. However, it is sometimes permanent and not even medication or alternative treatments can restore the heartbeat’s normal rhythm.

What are the causes of AF?

As we get older, especially after we reach 60, the risk of having AF increases. High blood pressure and coronary disease go hand in hand with this illness, as well as other heart and lung conditions. Other risk factors may include stress, alcohol and caffeine intake, diet pills, smoking and congenital anomalies.

What are the symptoms of AF?

Some arrhythmias go unnoticed, but others can cause fainting, dizziness, lightheadedness, heart palpitations, missing or extra heart beats, weakness, breathing difficulties and chest pains.

How is AF diagnosed? What does treatment involve?

In general, the doctor will perform an electrocardiogram (ECG), which is a test that shows how electrical signals go through the heart so that supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) can be diagnosed. Then, treatment will depend on each patient and his/her symptoms. Factors such as age, overall health, personal and family background will be considered, as well as if the patient is taking medication for another disease, underlying causes that might contribute to their arrhythmias, the nature of the arrhythmia, and how serious it is and its symptoms. The treatment for patients that suffer from AF aims at reducing the symptoms and risks of severe complications associated with this disease, such as strokes. In order to reduce the risk of suffering a stroke, the most important therapy is oral anticoagulants. Besides, there are strategies that do not entail drugs, such as the closure of the left atrial appendage, which offers a therapeutic alternative for patients that suffer from non-valvular atrial fibrillation and require a treatment for the potential formation of a clot in the left appendage and are not supposed to go through an anticoagulant treatment. These precise interventions offer a permanent solution for patients with AF and they remove the need for life-long anticoagulant treatment. Additional changes in lifestyle are suggested, such as a healthier diet, limiting or eliminating caffeine intake, exercising frequently and stopping smoking.

Ictus (or stroke)

According to the WHO, ictus or stroke is the second main cause of death in the world. From the 15 million people who suffer a stroke per year, 5 million die, and another 5 million remain permanently disabled. It is calculated that AF causes 15% of all strokes. For patients with AF who are over 70 years old, the probability of having a stroke doubles each decade, and a person who suffers from AF is five times more likely to have a stroke than the general population.

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

The most frequent indicators of a stroke are sudden weakness or numbness of the face, arm or leg, and it’s most frequent on only one side of the body. Other symptoms may include confusion, difficulty talking or understanding spoken language, difficulty seeing with one or both eyes, difficulty walking, and loss of balance or coordination, strong headache with an unknown cause or black-outs.