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Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke—A Risk You Can't Ignore

Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Afib and Stroke

People with Atrial fibrillation may be five times more likely to have a stroke than people without it.

We asked Doylestown Hospital electrophysiologist Robert Sangrigoli, MD about the connection between Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) and stroke and why it's so important to recognize.

What is the connection between stoke and atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a leading risk factor for stroke. With atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly and rapidly, which may impair your heart's ability to squeeze, relax and empty itself of blood. As a result, blood does not move quickly, becomes more stagnant and is prone to forming blood clots that can travel in the blood stream towards the brain and block blood flow to the brain causing a stroke.

Who is more likely to have atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is estimated to affect 2.2 million people in the U.S. Atrial fibrillation can often occur without symptoms, making it difficult for people to know if they have atrial fibrillation. The older you are, the greater your risk of developing atrial fibrillation. In particular, atrial fibrillation is more common in people over the age of 60.

Anyone with heart problems such as valve problems, heart failure, heart attack and heart surgery are at increased risk. High blood pressure is also a risk factor, especially if blood pressure is not well controlled. Sleep apnea, obesity, diabetes and other medical conditions such as thyroid problems may also increase the risk of atrial fibrillation. Alcohol, especially binge drinking, increases the risk of atrial fibrillation. Some people have no traditional risk factors, but still develop atrial fibrillation. In these cases, family history or a genetic predisposition may exist.

How are strokes that are caused by atrial fibrillation different than other types of stroke?

Strokes in atrial fibrillation tend to be more disabling and are more likely to be fatal than strokes in patients without atrial fibrillation.

What can people with atrial fibrillation do to reduce the risk for stroke?

Most strokes in people with atrial fibrillation can be prevented. The key is early diagnosis. The problem is that atrial fibrillation is often intermittent and can sometimes exist without symptoms.The National Stroke Association recommends checking your pulse at least once a month for an irregular rhythm, which is a sign of possible atrial fibrillation. Always ask your doctor to check your pulse as well.

Once atrial fibrillation is diagnosed it is important that your doctor explains your specific risk factors for stroke as not all people with AFib have the same risk for stroke. Most people with AFib are at least at some increased risk of stroke from blood clot formation.

Why is it so important that people with atrial fibrillation get the proper treatment?

The most important goal of treating atrial fibrillation is preventing blood clot formation and reducing the risk of stroke. In some people an aspirin a day may be enough, but most people with atrial fibrillation will require a more potent form of blood thinner to prevent blood clot formation. Today, there are a variety of options available for blood thinning and your doctor can explain the possible risks as well as the expected benefits of each option so that you and your doctor can choose the best blood thinner for you.

Atrial fibrillation can often cause fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitations and dizziness. Atrial fibrillation can sometimes cause serious heart damage without causing symptoms. Treatments to make people feel better and protect the heart may include slowing the heart rate of an abnormally beating heart or restoring normal rhythm to the heart, which may be achieved with medications or procedures such as cardioversion or ablation. If you have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, your doctor should discuss all these options with you and together you can pick the treatment that is best for you.

Have Questions About Atrial Fibrillation? Download our brochure.

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