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Atrial Fibrillation: What to Know

Posted on Feb 4, 2016 in Heart Health

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a heart rhythm disorder in which the steady electrical impulses that regulate the atria, the heart’s upper chambers, become disorganized and chaotic. These abnormal signals cause the atria to contract rapidly and ineffectually, over and over. This reduces the flow of blood to the body, causing shortness of breath, weakness and fatigue. It also increases the risk of heart failure and stroke.

In this blog post, Christopher Woods, M.D., Ph.D., an electrophysiologist at Mills-Peninsula Health Services, explains AFib and answers commonly asked questions about the disorder.

AFib progresses gradually in most people. “Early on, patients go in and out of normal rhythm, and that usually causes very noticeable symptoms,” Dr. Woods says. “But once they are in persistent AFib, they may no longer feel that contrast. They get used to being tired all the time and don’t realize how much they have changed their lives to accommodate their disease. Because of this gradual progression, AFib an insidious disease – it steals a person’s lifestyle a little bit at a time.”

What causes AFib?

AFib is generally linked with increasing age, although it can also be caused by heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and other conditions.

 How is AFib treated?

AFib can be treated with medications that have a moderate success rate, through a minimally invasive procedure called catheter ablation, or sometimes with both.

Is treating AFib with medication effective?

Antiarrhythmic drugs can help return the heart to a normal rhythm. While medication is easy to take, there may be side effects, and the medications generally become less effective over time.

What is an ablation?

An ablation is a minimally invasive procedure in which an electrophysiologist threads a catheter up through a blood vessel in the leg into the heart, and uses precise bursts of radiofrequency energy to destroy the tissue that is producing the abnormal electrical signals. Ablation eliminates the triggers of AFib. While ablation has a fairly high success rate, more than one procedure may be necessary, and sometimes medications are still needed.

Why is it important to treat AFib early?

As AFib progresses, the chance for a cure declines. AFib scars the heart. Once it scars, AFib is harder to treat with any modality. And so the longer the person has been in AFib, the less likely any treatment, including ablation, will be successful.

Watch patients and Dr. Woods partner on innovative procedure to beat AFib:

Facts about AFib from the American Heart Association

  • It’s the most common “serious” heart rhythm abnormality in people over the age of 65 years.
  • Untreated, AFib doubles the risk of heart-related deaths and leads to a 4-to-5-fold increase in risk for stroke.
  • Many patients are unaware that AFib is a serious condition.
  • One in three people will suffer from AFib by the time they reach 80.

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 Christopher Woods, M.D., Ph.D., is an electrophysiologist at Mills-Peninsula Health Services.