Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a chaotic rhythm in the heart's top chambers (atria) that can increase the risk of strokes, heart failure and other heart-related problems.
To understand how to lessen the risk of AFib, we asked Doylestown Health cardiologist John D. Harding, MD, FACC, FHRS, to define AFib. Dr. Harding explained that AFib happens when "bad electrical wiring" between the heart's chambers interferes with the timing of the heart's contractions. This rapid, irregular heartbeat can cause blood to pool in the atria and become stagnant, much like "a still pond that gathers algae." As a result, patients can develop blood clots that increase the risk of life-threatening conditions, such as strokes.
Afib can also lead to structural damage of the heart, causing it to weaken and for fluid to back up into the lungs, creating breathing difficulty. Dr. Harding advises that anyone experiencing AFib symptoms must seek immediate consultation with a primary healthcare provider who can discuss the symptoms and refer to a specialist if needed.
How Would I Know if I Have AFib?
Symptoms of AFib can include the sensation of a skipped heartbeat followed by a thump and then heart racing for an extended amount of time. Other symptoms can include decreased exercise tolerance, dizziness, shortness of breath and weakness. Episodes of AFib can come and go for some people and be so subtle that they do not know that they are experiencing AFib. For some patients, AFib can become progressive to the point where they can feel their heart racing all the time. This can lead to decreased exercise tolerance, diminished stamina, and poor life quality, says Dr. Harding.
Dr. Harding refers to this simple memory device for controlling AFib:
A = Avoid stroke using blood-thinning medication
B = Better management of symptoms (through patient-centered, symptom directed decisions on resetting rhythm and controlling heart rate)
C = Cardiovascular and Co-morbidity management (Risk factors that must be managed include obesity, alcohol consumption, high blood pressure and sleep apnea)
Data from studies into caffeine as it relates to AFib are mixed. While Dr. Harding does encourage his patients to reduce caffeine to a cup of coffee a day, it is "not a game-changer" in managing AFib.
If you feel fatigued, have shortness of breath, or decrease exercise tolerance, it is essential to see your primary care doctor or cardiologist for testing. Dr. Harding stresses that the longer one waits to get their AFib corrected, the harder it is to fix. Early diagnosis is particularly important for patients with congestive heart failure or weakening of the heart. The sooner a care plan is in place, the better the outcomes can be.
About Doylestown Health's Heart & Vascular Services
Expert cardiologists and cardiac surgeons assist patients and physicians with managing risk factors for heart disease, offer advanced treatment options and provide outstanding emergency cardiac care. Doylestown Hospital’s accredited Chest Pain Center is fully prepared to treat cardiac emergencies around the clock, focusing on rapid diagnosis and effective treatment. The multidisciplinary team at the Woodall Center for Heart and Vascular Care is dedicated to providing the highest level of quality care and patient safety.