This blog post is part of the Google+ Healthy Hangouts series on breaking and timely health news.
The big local story in health and sports recently is the collapse of Dallas Stars hockey player Rich Peverley during an NHL game due to an irregular heart rhythm. Some reports indicate that he suffers from atrial fibrillation, or Afib, as it is commonly referred.
While that hasn’t been confirmed by his physicians, Afib is the most common irregular heart rhythm disorder and affects millions of Americans. So how serious is it?
Joining me to discuss the issue are internal medicine physicians Roger Khetan, M.D., and Cherese Wiley, M.D., who are on the Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas medical staff. We’re also pleased to welcome to the discussion Robert Kowal, MD, a cardiologist on the Baylor Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital (BHVH) medical staff, who specializes in electrophysiology and heart rhythm disorders.
Seriousness and Symptoms
Afib occurs when the electrical activity in the heart is out of sync, meaning that the top chambers of the heart are not working in concert with the bottom chambers. This can impact how well the heart pumps blood throughout the body.
While Afib usually isn’t thought of as being a serious condition in and of itself, the main risk is that it can lead to blood clots that can result in stroke.
Some patients never or rarely experience symptoms. While others report
- Heart palpations
- Feeling as though they are about to pass out
The Heart of the Cause
Afib is more common in patients over the age of 75, but Dr. Kowal says he is seeing it in younger people more often. Statistics also point to a rise in the incidence of Afib, however, the reason for the rise is unknown.
Afib can be caused by a heart valve disorder. More often though, Dr. Wiley and Dr. Khetan see it in their practices as the result of an underlying condition, such as:
- Sleep apnea
- Lung disease (COPD)
- Congestive heart failure
- Excessive alcohol use
In some instances, there does seem to be a genetic component, though the exact nature of it is still unclear according to Dr. Kowal.
Back in Rhythm
For Afib caused by an underlying condition, it vital to treat that condition first and foremost.
Although, not everyone experiencing heart palpitations or flutters has Afib. That is why getting a thorough medical history is an important first step in diagnosing the condition. Caffeine, adrenaline and other factors can lead to temporary heart flutters, which can be mistaken for Afib.
It’s also important to note that not everyone who has Afib needs to be treated or needs ongoing treatment. Physicians use a CHADS2 score, which measures specific risk factors, to determine whether a patient with Afib is at risk of stroke and needs to be on medication. If so, they are placed on a blood-thinning medication to prevent blood clots. Other treatment options include:
- Cardioversion: attempting to ‘shock’ the heart back into a normal rhythm.
- Catheter ablation: using extreme heat or cold to eliminate heart tissue that could be causing Afib.
Dr. Kowal says there are some exciting new treatments for Afib and reducing stroke risk that are in late stage clinical trials and could hit the market later this year. I encourage you to watch our Hangout to learn more about those treatments, this condition and how to keep it in check.