Your heart begins racing, seeming to pound against your ribs, and you suddenly feel almost too weak to continue standing. Or, you write off those symptoms as a possible panic attack — until they snowball, and your fingers start tingling.
Those are just two of the possible ways that atrial fibrillation (aka AFib), the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm, can make itself known. In someone with AFib, the heart’s natural pacemaker runs amok, losing its ability to coordinate the contractions in the pumping chamber on the heart’s right side.
The result? A disorganized quivering that can cause the heart to beat anywhere from 80 to 200 times per minute. And since this can prevent the that chamber of the heart from emptying completely, the trapped blood can pool and begin clotting, which, if part of the clot breaks off and travels to the brain, can result in a stroke. (And indeed, AFib increases stroke risk four- to five-fold, and is one of the major causes of stroke, particularly in people over 70.)
While it’s not surprising that a frantically beating heart can make you feel as if you must be dying, not everyone with AFib experiences symptoms. And since in some people with the condition, the uncoordinated beating occurs only intermittently, it’s not always possible to pick it up by taking someone’s pulse. In fact, up to half of cases may go undetected, and undiagnosed AFib could be the culprit behind a number of strokes that don’t have an obvious cause.
That said, there are a number of risk factors that can cast the suspicion someone may have AFib (and getting these under control could potentially prevent the condition from developing in the first place). And once it’s uncovered, treatments ranging from medications to a procedure to ‘fence off’ the misbehaving portion of the heart muscle can improve symptoms, and substantially reduce the risk of stroke, and other complications.
This piece I wrote for the July/August 2014 issue of Good Times: ‘A Guide to Atrial Fibrillation’ is still a decent overview of the condition. But recent research may change the way AFib is treated. A national study conducted at UBC suggests that medication may not be the best first-line option.
For even more information about AFib, visit the Heart and Stroke Foundation website.
- Dr. George Dresser, pharmacologist and associate professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry in London, Ont.
- Dr. Jeff Healey, scientific director and principal investigator at the Canadian Stroke Prevention Intervention Network (C-SPIN, part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research), and an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
- The late Shirley Leasa, of Strathroy, Ontario, who passed away in February of this year.
- Dr. Andrew Pipe, former chief of the Division of Prevention and Rehabilitation at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute (where he continues to conduct research), and a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa.
- Dr. Stanley Nattel, Paul-David Chair in cardiovascular electrophysiology at the University of Montreal and director of the electrophysiology research program at the Montreal Heart Institute.
- Dale Rooker, Qualicum Beach, BC.
- Dr. Allan Skanes, director of the electrophysiology laboratory at London Health Sciences Centre and a professor of medicine at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry in London, Ont.
- Dr. Stephen Wilton, a cardiologist and heart rhythm specialist at the University of Calgary.