When you hear the term 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 (A-Fib), currently 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 causes the atria to quiver instead of squeeze.
Most people with A-Fib can tell something is wrong. They typically feel palpitations, a fast heart rate, shortness of breath or fatigue. But some people in A-Fib feel nothing at all.
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A-Fib can occur without symptoms, but that doesn't mean it is without risks because it is still potentially causing damage. The chief risks with A-Fib are stroke and weakening of the heart muscle that can lead to heart failure. A-Fib is responsible for 15-20 percent of all reported strokes, and up to one third of these patients did not know they had A-Fib until they had a stroke.
The good news is there are things you can do to dramatically reduce these risks:
Find out if you have A-Fib. Check your pulse. If it feels fast or irregular, you may have A-Fib. Your doctor can often diagnose it with a simple EKG.
Treat any potential causes. The most common causes of A-Fib are high blood pressure, sleep apnea and thyroid disease. People who have these conditions often have fewer A-Fib episodes if they keep them under control.
Lifestyle changes can reduce A-Fib symptoms. Stress, caffeine and alcohol can all be triggers for A-Fib. Limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol and trying to find ways to lower your stress level can help. Maintaining a healthy weight also lowers the risk of developing A-Fib.
Follow your doctor's advice on specific treatment for your A-Fib. Many treatment options are available for A-Fib. Medicine can help. There are also 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 your unique situation.
Whether you have symptoms or not, you need treatment for A-Fib to reduce the risk of stroke or heart failure. If you think you may have it, please schedule an evaluation with your health care provider.