(BPT) - An estimated 3 million Americans have atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib), which is the most common cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat). AF increases in frequency and severity as patients grow older and can cause serious health complications, including stroke.
What is AF?
Dr. Shane Bailey, a cardiac electrophysiologist with Texas Cardia Arrhythmia in Austin, treats patients with AF, many of whom know very little about the condition and its symptoms before they are diagnosed.
"I describe AF to my patients as a chaotic, uncontrolled heart rhythm that occurs when the upper chambers of the heart - the atria - contract rapidly and irregularly, from 300 to 600 times per minute. A normal heart beat is 60 to 100 times per minute," says Bailey.
AF results when the heart's electrical system, which provides the basis for heart muscle contractions (heartbeats), fails to send electricity through the heart in a regular, measured pattern. Sometimes the electrical signal gets blocked or travels the same pathways repeatedly, creating a "short circuit" that disturbs normal heart rhythms.
During AF, blood pools in the upper chambers of the heart, where it can clot. If a clot travels from the atria to the brain, it can cause a stroke.
Dr. Bailey says while some people with AF have no symptoms, others may experience symptoms such as heart palpitations, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, fatigue, fainting and anxiousness.
Bob Whitehurst, an AF patient from Houston, decided to pursue treatment after the symptoms began to significantly affect his life.
"AF saps your energy because your heart isn't pumping blood efficiently," Whitehurst says. "I was taking medication, but knew I had to do more when episodes started happening at work. After receiving ablation, I no longer have AF symptoms - the procedure is such a blessing."
Medications treat only the symptoms of AF; ablation treats the underlying problem causing the condition. A recent FDA review found ablation had at least a 47 percent greater success rate than medication.
It is important to note there are risks and potential adverse events associated with ablation procedures, including but not limited to cardiovascular related complications, such as hematoma, effusion and infection. Contact force ablation may not be appropriate for patients who have certain recent heart surgery, prosthetic valves, active systemic infection or patients who have undergone other major vascular procedures. Patients should consult with their physician to learn more about their options.
Is ablation right for you?
Diagnostic procedures help physicians determine the best course of action to successfully manage and treat AF so patients can lead full and active lives. Some people experience side effects from the medications used to treat AF, such as blood thinners.
"Many people don't like the idea of being on a blood thinner indefinitely," says Dr. Bailey. "For that reason, I consider ablation to be a first-line treatment for many of my AF patients, as the procedure can mean they'll eventually discontinue using these medicines."
A checklist of questions patients can ask their doctor can be found at www.sjm.com/AfibAnswers, a site provided by St. Jude Medical, a leader in technologies that treat atrial fibrillation.
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