Author: Erin Thomson
If you experience episodes of rapid heartbeat or extreme palpitations, you may have a serious condition called atrial fibrillation, often referred to as AFib.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia treated. An arrhythmia occurs when the heart beats too slowly, too quickly, or irregularly. When a person has atrial fibrillation, normal beats in the upper chambers of the heart are irregular and blood does not flow as well as it should from the atria to the lower chambers of the heart. AFib can occur in brief episodes, or it can be a permanent condition.
Atrial fibrillation can lead to blood clots, strokes, heart failure, and other heart complications. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib. According to the American Heart Association, anyone from children to adults can develop atrial fibrillation. The chances of contracting atrial fibrillation increase with age. With so many people living longer, medical researchers predict that the number of cases of atrial fibrillation will increase dramatically over the next few years. Despite the fact that AFib increases the risk of heart-related death and stroke, many patients do not take it seriously, including its life-threatening consequences if left untreated.
Generally, people who have one or more of the following conditions are at higher risk for atrial fibrillation:
- Advanced age
- High blood pressure
- Underlying heart disease
- drinking alcohol
- family history
- Sleep Apnea
- Athletes – can be triggered by rapid heart rate
- Other chronic diseases such as thyroid problems (especially hyperthyroidism), diabetes, asthma, and other chronic medical conditions
Treatment for atrial fibrillation involves preventing blood clots and restoring your normal heart rate and rhythm. Medications such as blood thinners, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, sodium blockers, and potassium blockers are the most common.
“In the event that the drugs don’t work, an ablation can be done,” said Abdul Alawwa, MD, cardiac electrophysiologist at McLaren Flint. “This is done using a catheter using different types of radio frequency energy. The two options are extreme heat or cold (cryoablation) to destroy a few cells in your heart that are sending the signals causing the abnormal rhythm. This brings the heart rate back to a normal pattern.
There have also been advances in other treatments such as pacemaker technology. Micra is a single-chamber pacemaker that is about the size of a vitamin and can be implanted directly into the heart, eliminating the need to implant the leads as well.
“The Micra is a minimally invasive procedure that allows us to implant the pacemaker via a catheter into the leg through a very small incision,” said Madar Abed, MD, cardiac electrophysiologist at McLaren Flint. “This is a great option for patients because the minimally invasive procedures avoid complications such as infections.”
For patients with atrial fibrillation who cannot tolerate blood thinners to prevent stroke, an alternative treatment option is the WATCHMAN device. It is placed in a part of the heart called the left atrial appendage (LAA). The device is specifically suitable for people with atrial fibrillation, which is the leading cause of strokes in the United States and around the world.
“Ninety percent of stroke-causing blood clots that originate in the heart and can cause strokes form in the LAA and atrial fibrillation increases strokes by 500%,” Mustafa said. Hassan, MD, cardiac electrophysiologist and cardiologist at McLaren Flint. “The WATCHMAN permanently closes off that part of the heart to prevent those blood clots from escaping.”
A doctor guides the WATCHMAN implant into the patient’s heart through a catheter inserted into a vein in the upper leg. It does not require open heart surgery.
To learn more about the comprehensive cardiac and vascular services offered by McLaren Flint, visit mclaren.org/flintheart.