Life With Irregular Heartbeats

Do you know the truth about AFib? Those four letters form a catchy abbreviation for atrial fibrillation, the most common type of irregular heartbeat. Every beat of your heart is driven by a natural electrical system. But when those electrical signals become erratic, the result is rapid, irregular heartbeats. Chronic or permanent AFib can be hazardous to your health and can increase the risk of stroke or heart failure, according to Alvaro Gomez, M.D., interventional cardiologist at Baptist Cardiac & Vascular Institute.  

September is Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month, and Baptist Health is hosting a lunch-and-learn seminar about AFib.  Do you have a question about AFib? Here’s a little cheat sheet with answers and information about important tests.

What does AFib mean?
“Atrial” is the name for the upper two chambers of your heart; “fibrillate” applies to irregular and fast contractions. Together, the two words denote the rapid and erratic contractions in the heart’s upper chambers.

When AFib strikes, the heart’s ability to pump blood is compromised. That leaves the door open for blood pools to form in the upper two chambers, which can lead to blood clots. A stroke occurs when a blood clot travels to the brain.

 What is the electrical system of the heart?
An electrical signal choreographs the rhythm and pace of your heartbeat. As it travels through your heart, the electrical signal triggers contractions that pump blood through the heart.

When that signal is faulty, the upper and lower chambers of the heart contract with less coordination and efficiency. The result?  A faster, but erratic heartbeat that allows too much blood to collect in the upper chambers, while not enough is pumped into the lower chambers.

 What are the symptoms?
Signs of AFib include heart palpitations, chest pains, shortness of breath and dizziness. But atrial fibrillation can be present without any of those symptoms and can be detected only when a patient is examined for other health problems.

What tests are used to diagnose AFib?
Different tests—from low-tech to high-tech procedures—are used to diagnose AFib. Tests include:

  • Basic physical exam: As part of a comprehensive exam, your doctor will measure your pulse and blood pressure, and listen to your heartbeat. Swollen legs and feet will also be on the watch list.
  • EKG: This test records the electrical activity in your heart and reveals how quickly and regularly your heart beats.
  • Stress test:  The pace of your heart is measured during a controlled exercise session.
  • Echocardiography: This ultrasound test uses sound waves to map the pace and movements of your heart.
  • Blood tests: Your physician may order different blood tests to rule out other health problems that may be adding stress to your heart. For example, an overactive thyroid, anemia or kidney problems could trigger rapid and irregular heartbeats. “By treating that problem, you also treat AFib,” Dr. Gomez says.

What are the treatments for AFib?
Your physician may prescribe medication to slow the rate of your heart or blood thinners to prevent blood clots. Other possible treatments include low-level electrical shocks to the heart, a procedure that helps the heart resume a healthy rhythm.

A healthy lifestyle is also important, with a menu that moderates or excludes salt, caffeine and alcohol.

 Is AFib a permanent condition?
Every case is different. For some patients, AFib is just a temporary condition. Others have “persistent atrial fibrillation,” which involves irregular rhythms for more than seven days. This condition can be halted with medical attention or the heart may resume a normal pace on its own. With “permanent atrial fibrillation” the erratic heart beat does not respond to treatment.

 “If you have atrial fibrillation, it’s very important to check in with your doctor on a regular basis.  Your condition needs to be closely monitored,” Dr. Gomez says.

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With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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