Health & Medicine

Atrial fibrillation is a form of heart disease that affects its rhythm

When you hear the words heart disease do you think of the heart attack your neighbor just had?

While coronary heart disease, which can lead to a heart attack, is the most common form of heart disease, there are many other conditions that also affect the heart. Many people have irregular heart rhythms. The most common, atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, affects about 2.3 million Americans.

In A-fib, an abnormality in the heart's electrical system causes the top chambers (the atria) to beat fast and irregularly. This makes the atria quiver instead of squeeze. Some A-fib sufferers have symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness or palpitations. Others who have A-fib are totally unaware of it.

At one time, A-fib was considered harmless. We now know that while A-fib itself isn't life-threatening, if left unchecked it can lead to problems. The most common are increased risk of stroke — up to five times higher —and heart failure.

The good news is there are things you can do to reduce these risks.

■ Find out if you have A-fib. Check your pulse. If it feels fast or irregular, you might have A-fib. Your doctor often can diagnose A-fib with a simple EKG.

■ Treat any potential causes. There is no one cause of A-fib, but many conditions can lead to it. The most common are high blood pressure, sleep apnea and thyroid disease. People with these conditions often have fewer A-fib episodes if they keep the conditions under control.

■ Make lifestyle changes. Try to find ways to reduce your stress level, as stress can trigger A-fib in some people. Limit use of caffeine and alcohol intake.

■ Follow your doctor's advice on specific treatment. Many treatment options are available for A-fib. Medicine can help, and there are several procedures and surgical techniques to treat A-fib. The key is for you and your health care providers to work closely together to determine the best treatment for you.

Whether you have symptoms or not, A-fib needs treatment to reduce the risk of stroke or heart failure. Remember, a heart attack isn't the only thing that could happen to your heart.