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October 2013

Heart Rhythm Problem Becoming More Common

Your heart beats an average of 60 to 100 times every minute. Despite this constant movement, you probably don’t notice it. That isn’t always the case for the growing number of Americans who have atrial fibrillation (AF), a heart rhythm problem.

 

A misfiring heart

In a healthy adult, the heart beats in a systematic matter. A group of cells called the sinus node sparks an electrical charge. This current travels from the upper right chamber of your heart—the right atrium—to the left atrium. It then zips down into the ventricles, the lower parts of your heart. This pulse triggers a contraction that pushes blood out of your heart and throughout the rest of your body.

In people with AF, the heart doesn’t follow this pattern. Instead, the electrical signals begin away from the sinus node—in other parts of the atria or even in a blood vessel outside the heart. As a result, the atria beat rapidly and irregularly. The ventricles can’t keep up. This lack of coordination affects the blood flow from the heart.

When the heart misfires this way, a person may feel a fluttering or a rapid thumping in the chest. Other signs of AF may include shortness of breath, weakness when exercising, chest pain, dizziness, fatigue, and confusion. But not all people with the condition have symptoms.

A disheartening trend

A recent study in the American Journal of Cardiology projects that the number of Americans with AF will more than double by 2030. That equates to more than 12 million people. Researchers speculate this rise is linked to improvements in diagnosis and the failing health of an aging population.

In some people, the reason for AF is unknown. But it’s often the result of heart damage. In particular, conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity weaken the heart. Binge drinking may also cause an irregular heartbeat.

The chief concern of AF is stroke. People with AF are five times more likely to have a stroke. Why? An irregular heartbeat can allow blood to pool inside the heart and form blood clots. If a clot travels to the brain, it can block blood flow—the prerequisite for a stroke. AF can also lead to heart failure.

If you are concerned about AF, talk with your doctor. He or she can listen to your heart or may also recommend a painless test called an electrocardiogram. It measures your heart’s electrical activity.

AF can last a few hours, a week, or indefinitely. Certain medications can relieve symptoms. Because of the risk for stroke with AF, doctors generally will prescribe a blood-thinning drug to prevent blood clots from forming. Another treatment option is electrical cardioversion, when small shocks are delivered to the heart to restore its normal rhythm.

Self-Testing for Atrial Fibrillation

The National Stroke Association recommends self-testing once a month for atrial fibrillation, especially if you are at high risk for stroke. Here is a step-by-step guide:

  • Turn your left palm up. Place your first two fingers of your right hand on your left wrist just below your hand.

  • Press down gently and move your fingers around until you find your pulse.

  • Pay attention to your pulse for one minute. Don’t worry about the beats. Concentrate on the rhythm.

  • Talk with your doctor if your pulse seems irregular.

Click here to learn more about AF.

 

Online Resources

American Heart Association – What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@hcm/documents/downloadable/ucm_300294.pdf

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute – What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/af/