By Dr. Afroze Ahmad, Las Sendas Cardiology, PC
Because a wide range of events or circumstances can trigger atrial fibrillation, it is important to pay attention to the warning signs and seek appropriate treatment.
What follows are a few examples of what may induce atrial fibrillation.
"I had lost my job. I was depressed. Binge drinking gave way to daily heavy alcohol intake. It came so suddenly. I felt dizzy. Then, it seemed I was hit by a high voltage shock in the pit of my stomach. The next thing I remember, I am in the emergency room. The cardiologist told me the high voltage shock was atrial fibrillation, and alcohol was the culprit."
"I have an overactive thyroid gland but no heart problems. Then, one day when I noticed a rapid thumping in my chest. My doctor said the rapid thumping was atrial fibrillation, and my thyroid was driving my heart rate so high and fast."
"Every now and then, when I am in a rush for whatever reason, I will feel a rapid beat in my chest. My cardiologist ordered a monitor to evaluate my heart rhythm. The monitor showed the rapid beat sensation was atrial fibrillation."
"All through my adult life I would relax with a couple of cups of good strong brewed coffee. Not any more. Now, it seems, with even the first cup of coffee, a birdie settles in my chest and flutters so hard, as if there was no tomorrow. My cardiologist told me the birdie in my chest was atrial fibrillation."
Simply put, it is an irregular heartbeat.
So, what is atrial fibrillation? The easiest way to understand many of the heart disorders, is to picture the heart as a two-story house. We know a house has both a plumbing system and an electrical system. Well, atrial fibrillation is a disorder of the electrical system of the heart.
Nature wants the upper and lower story of the heart to beat in synchrony. In atrial fibrillation, the electrical system of the upper story of the house develops a mind of its own, and no longer works in synchrony with the electrical system of the lower story. The result is electric signals, which are not only fast or slow but also irregular. These irregular and chaotic electric signals are known as atrial fibrillation.
The perception of atrial fibrillation by an individual is both variable and diverse. One may feel dizzy or lightheaded. At times, it is a sudden jolt or shock-like sensation. However, generally, there are palpitations or the heart is fluttering. The fast heartbeat also may cause fatigue and shortness of breath. Chest pain also may occur. Sometimes, the individual simply notices ankle swelling and unexplained weight gain. In some people, the first presentation is a stroke.
Actually, it does not. Surprisingly, atrial fibrillation is quite common. Approximately five out of every 100 people after the age of 55 years will have atrial fibrillation. After the age of 80 years, the number rises to 15 to 20 out of every 100 people.
There are multiple reasons for atrial fibrillation. Generally, it is precipitated by an underlying heart disease. The underlying disease could be high blood pressure, a leaking heart valve, a previous heart attack or blockages in the heart.
However, other non-heart problems also may lead to atrial fibrillation, including lung disease and thyroid disease. Snoring and sleep apnea also may be associated with atrial fibrillation. Sometimes, atrial fibrillation simply runs in families. Similarly, use of any stimulant may increase the risks of atrial fibrillation, as well. Caffeinated products and alcohol, both binge and long-term heavy use, also are closely tied to episodes of atrial fibrillation.
This is the first in a four-part series of articles about atrial fibrillation written by Dr. Ahmad. The remaining articles will address diagnosis and complications, including stroke risk and treatment options, as well as challenges with blood thinners, such as Warfarin/Coumadin.