Is your heart beating too rapidly? It may be atrial fibrillation

Story by Jamie Lampros
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Mon, Oct 22, 2012
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Sit down and take your pulse. How fast is your heart beating while at rest? If it’s between 60 and 100 beats per minute, that’s great, but if it’s racing like you just finished an intense workout, you’d better see your doctor.

An estimated 2.5 million Americans suffer from atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat, and many of them have no idea they have it. However, this potentially life-changing cardiovascular condition is on the rise, according to experts, and is expected to more than double by 2050.

“Atrial fibrillation is an irregular and often rapid heart rate that commonly causes poor blood flow to the body,” said Kristy Chambers, chest pain coordinator at Ogden Regional Medical Center. “During atrial fibrillation, the heart’s two upper chambers beat chaotically and irregularly out of coordination with the two lower chambers of the heart.”

Atrial fibrillation can strike at any age, although it’s more prevalent in the elderly, according to cardiac physicians at Baylor Health Care System in Dallas, who are trying to raise awareness of the condition.

Ten percent of men over the age of 80 have it, and they are at greater risk because they are more likely to have conditions that can trigger an irregular heartbeat, such as high blood pressure, heart valve disease, heart failure and coronary artery disease.

In younger people, the condition can also be triggered by high blood pressure, heart failure, high thyroid levels, viral infection, chronic lung disease, previous heart surgery or pericarditis, which is an inflammation of the lining around the heart.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about atrial fibrillation that I hear from patients is that if they can’t feel it, they don’t have it,” said Dr. Manish Assar, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Baylor Jack and Jane Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital. “But the diagnosis is made through an EKG and if the EKG says they have atrial fibrillation, they have it.”

Atrial fibrillation is responsible for 15 percent to 20 percent of strokes, and strokes resulting from atrial fibrillation come with a higher rate of death.

But because atrial fibrillation is a condition of the heart, experts say, the threat to the brain is often overlooked. Patients don’t realize that blood clots can form in the heart, break off and travel to the brain, blocking major blood vessels.

Although many people don’t experience symptoms, Chambers said, those symptoms can include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, fatigue, chest pain and lightheadedness.

“Anyone that is experiencing symptoms should schedule an appointment with their personal physician for an exam and EKG,” Chambers said. “If you’re not experiencing symptoms, you should have an annual physical exam from your personal physician that would be able to identify atrial fibrillation.”

According to Assar, there are several ways to get hearts back on beat. Medications are one option. Catheter ablation, a minimally invasive surgical option which treats atrial fibrillation, is another.


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