A healthy human heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute. If you have atrial fibrillation, or Afib, your heart beats anywhere from 100 to 175 times per minute. Afib is the most common arrhythmia – or irregular heart rhythm. It is a progressive disease that, if left untreated, can lead to stroke and congestive heart failure. It’s called “atrial” because the fibrillation, or chaotic contraction of the heart, starts in the upper chambers of the heart, which are called atria.
There are two common types of Afib. One is caused by a heart valve problem and one is not. The majority of Afib is NOT caused by a heart valve problem and is estimated to affect 6 million Americans. When Afib is NOT caused by a heart valve problem, it puts people at 5 times greater risk for a stroke.
When you have Afib, the top chambers of your heart do not contract properly to pump blood to the lower heart chambers and out of your heart. The poor flow can cause blood to pool in the upper chambers of the heart and cause clots. The blood clots can circulate to other parts of the body, including the brain, causing a blockage or ischemic stroke. This is one reason why blood-thinning medication is an important treatment for Afib.
Most Afib patients are treated with medication, but about half of all patients are not able to control their abnormal heart rhythm with medication or find they cannot tolerate the side effects. For these patients, new procedures are proving effective in returning the heart to a more normal pattern. (See Joy Seiler’s story.)
In a minimally invasive procedure, a trained physician guides small instruments attached to a thin catheter from a vein on the inside of your leg to your heart and uses tiny electrodes at the tip of the catheter to deliver radiofrequency energy to destroy the problem cells and restore normal heart rhythm.
Once a person is diagnosed with Afib, it’s important to treat the symptoms before the disease progresses. Efficient treatment in the early stages can greatly improve the outcome in the long term, and reduce the risk of stroke immediately. Talk to your doctor about any symptoms.