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Facts You Should Know About AFib and Stroke

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If you’ve ever been relaxing and suddenly felt like your heart was racing, you may have experienced a common type of arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation.

When atrial fibrillation (AFib) occurs, the smaller heart chambers, called atria, tremble rapidly and sporadically. As a result, the atria cannot efficiently pump blood into the larger ventricles, causing a rapid and irregular heartbeat that may be felt as a skipped beat, flutter or racing heartbeat. If atrial fibrillation occurs only rarely, there usually isn’t much to worry about. With continued or consistent irregular heartbeats, however, blood can begin to pool up in the heart, increasing the risk of a clot. If a clot forms and travels to the brain, blood flow to the brain can become blocked, causing a stroke. Below, you’ll find the most common symptoms, risk factors and treatment options for AFib and stroke. If you’re concerned about your own symptoms, talk to your doctor about ways you can control AFib and reduce your risk of stroke.

AFib Symptoms

The most common symptom of AFib is heart palpitations, which most describe as feeling like the heart is fluttering or beating too fast. Merely being aware that your heart is beating can also be a sign of heart palpitations, as can pressure, discomfort or pain in the chest. AFib may also cause abdominal pain if a blood clot forms and travels to the main artery of the abdomen (mesenteric artery). Other possible symptoms may include fatigue or shortness of breath caused by fluid in the lungs, lightheadedness due to decreased blood flow to the brain and an inability to exercise due to worsening symptoms. In most cases, symptoms of AFib only last for a few minutes, but can sometimes last up to a few hours. If AFib symptoms are constant, you may be experiencing chronic atrial fibrillation and should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Stroke Symptoms

Symptoms of a stroke may include  a sudden weak or numb feeling in the face, arm or leg on only one side of the body, sudden confusion and difficulty speaking or understanding what others are saying. Stroke can also interfere with vision, causing blurred vision or loss of vision in one or both eyes. Severe headache, dizziness, lack of coordination and difficulty walking may also occur. When identifying signs of a stroke in someone else, look for symptoms such as an inability to smile when asked (one side of the face droops), inability to lift both arms at the same time (one drifts downward), slurred or strange speech and poor coordination (stumbling or falling when trying to walk). A stroke is a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment. If you or someone you know experiences any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Risk Factors

The exact cause of AFib is often unknown, though underlying heart or cardiovascular issues may be the culprit in some cases. There are certain factors that may make AFib more likely, however, including high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism, abnormal heart valves and other heart defects. Coronary artery disease, lung diseases and viral infections can also lead to AFib.

Other risk factors may include age, family history of AFib, excessive alcohol consumption (especially binge drinking), excessive caffeine intake, extreme psychological stress and fatigue. If you’re concerned about your risk of AFib and stroke, talk to your doctor about ways you may be able to lower your risk through certain lifestyle and dietary changes.

Treatments

The primary goal of AFib treatment is to reset the rhythm of the heart and reduce the risk of blood clots and stroke. Treatment for AFib will be based on your overall health, including any existing conditions and medications you may currently be taking. Your doctor will review your symptoms and health history, and then work with you to develop a treatment plan best suited to your needs. There are several types of treatment to choose from, including medications, cardioversion and surgery.

There are two types of cardioversion – electrical cardioversion and chemical cardioversion. Electrical cardioversion is performed by delivering a shock to the heart through paddles or patches placed on the chest. The electric shock briefly stops the heart’s electrical activity, in most cases resetting the heartbeat to normal. Chemical cardioversion is achieved through medications called antiarrythmics, which work to restore normal heart rhythm. There are several antiarrythmic medications available, including Dofetilide, Flecainide, prpafenone and Amiodarone, and as with most medications, side effects may occur. Other medications, such as Lanoxin, can be used to control resting heart rate, but do not work well during physical activity. Surgical options may also be available, but are generally only done as a last resort, after medications and cardioversion have proven unsuccessful.

Steve is a fitness guru who is passionate about helping people lead healthier lives. Find Steve on LinkedIn!

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