The heart is a marvelous machine—electrical impulses signal the upper chambers, or atria, to pump blood into the ventricles and then the impulses trigger the ventricles to pump the blood out to the rest of the body, keeping us alive and healthy. But if something goes wrong with the machine, that can cause arrhythmia, says Tin Botzler, MD, a cardiologist at
Humboldt Medical Specialists in Eureka.
"There are several different types of arrhythmia that can result in irregular heart beat and heart rate," Dr. Botzler says. "While some are brief and relatively harmless, others can pose serious risks because the erratic heart beat means blood isn't pumping properly, which can cause organ damage."
One of the more serious forms of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation (AFib). About 2.7 million people have this heart condition, according to the American Heart Association. "With AFib, there is a problem with electrical impulses in the heart's atria and they can't properly get blood into the ventricles," Dr. Botzler says. Because of that, there's a higher chance of developing blood clots—which can either cause heart failure or, if the clot breaks free and travels to the brain, stroke. "AFib causes roughly 15 to 20 percent of strokes in America," Dr. Botzler says, adding that people with the condition are five times more likely to have a stroke than people whose hearts beat normally.
People with AFib usually experience a fluttering heart beat; other symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness or fatigue, weakness and chest pain.
"There are three types of AFib," Dr. Botzler says. "Paroxysmal occurs unpredictably and lasts for less than a week at a time, though it can develop into a permanent condition. Persistent AFib goes longer than a week and needs treatment to return the heart to a normal rhythm. And permanent AFib is an indefinite condition in which the decision has been made to monitor the condition rather than try to return the heart to a normal rhythm."
Doctors diagnose AFib after a medical examination that usually includes an echocardiogram. The doctor may recommend monitoring the condition with regular checkups to stay on top of any issues. If treatment is advised, options can include medication, surgery, catheter ablation (catheters guide radiofrequency energy into the heart to eliminate the arrhythmia) or cardioversion (patients are put to sleep and the heart is given small shocks to try and get the rhythm back to normal).
"A doctor may also, based on your risk factors, recommend preventive stroke measures such as aspirin therapy or anticoagulant medication, or simply the adoption of healthier lifestyle choices with proper diet and exercise," Dr. Botzler says.
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