PINEHURST, N.C. -- An arrhythmia is an irregular or abnormal heartbeat. Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is the most common type of arrhythmia in adults with increasing incidence with age, causing the heart to beat too quickly. AFib is an abnormal firing of electrical impulses within the heart causes the top chambers of the heart, called the atria, to quiver or fibrillate (beat very fast).
Having AFib increases your risk of having a stroke. In fact, the risk of stroke in people with AFib is about five times higher than in people who don’t have AFib. That’s why it’s important to know if you have this serious heart condition so it can be treated.
FirstHealth electrophysiologist Mark D. Landers, M.D. FACC, said some people who have AFib have no symptoms and are unaware they have the condition. Landers also said some symptoms can be atypical, such as a change in exercise ability or noted shortness of breath with activity from baseline.
“AFib may be found when a provider does an exam or performs a cardiac test such as an electrocardiogram (ECG), echocardiogram, stress test, or heart monitor. Some may experience intermittent symptoms but not recognize that they are associated with AFib – called paroxysmal atrial fibrillation,” Landers said.
Treatment of the risk of stroke or blood clots in other areas of the body is critical. Most patients are started on medication – anticoagulation/blood thinners - to prevent this potential complication such as warfarin (Coumadin), Eliquis, Xarelto, and Savaysa. Alternative treatment options for the prevention of a stroke and avoiding long-term anticoagulation available at FirstHealth include the Watchman device and AtriClip, Landers said. FirstHealth began offering the Watchman procedure in 2021.
Warning Signs of AFib
Many symptoms of AFib may be similar to other heart-related issues, including coronary artery disease and heart attack. If you suspect that you are having a heart attack, especially if you have chest pain or pressure, call 911 right away.
Otherwise, if you have symptoms of AFib, Landers says it’s important to speak with your primary care provider or cardiologist. Symptoms may include the following:
- Palpitations – the heart may feel like it’s racing, fluttering, pounding, thumping or beating irregularly
- Chest pain, pressure or discomfort
- Dizziness, light-headedness or faintness
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue or lack of energy (in general or while exercising)
Warning Signs of Stroke
Since AFib increases your chance of having a stroke, it’s important to recognize the warning signs of stroke if you have AFib. Time is of the essence if a stroke occurs, and the faster you get to the hospital, the better the chance that doctors can provide treatment that may improve your recovery and could even save your life.
Stroke warning signs typically appear suddenly, are more apparent on only one side of the body. Remember the acronym BE FAST to recognize the signs of a stroke:
B - Balance: Is there a sudden loss of balance or difficulty walking?
E - Eyes: Is there sudden blurred or double vision, or loss of vision in one or both eyes?
F - Face: Is there suddenly an uneven smile or drooping of one side of the face?
A - Arms: Is there a sudden weakness, downward drift or numbness of one arm?
S - Speech: Is the speech suddenly slurred or garbled? Is the person able to repeat the sentence, 'Today is a sunny day?'
T - Time: Call 911 quickly if one or more of these signs are present.
What to Do If You Have Symptoms
If you suspect you may have AFib, or have any symptoms of the condition, talk to your doctor.
“Several treatment options are available for atrial fibrillation, including medications to control heart rate and/or rhythm, cardioversion – shocking the heart back to a normal rhythm, ablation therapy - both catheter-based and surgical - as a means for control of symptoms," Landers said. “The main goals of treatment are to control the heart rate, manage the heart rhythm, and prevent blood clots from forming that may lead to a stroke.”
However, because symptoms of AFib can often overlap with those of a heart attack or stroke (both of which require time-sensitive treatment), call 911 immediately to get to a hospital ASAP if you are concerned that AFib may be occurring along with a heart attack or stroke.
FirstHealth leads the region in advanced heart and vascular care. Our services are offered in the state-of-the-art Reid Heart Center in Pinehurst, North Carolina, and in our seven cardiology clinics throughout our region.