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Heart Health, Cardiology: Treatments Available for Atrial Fibrillation  Previous Next

Treatments Available for Atrial Fibrillation

by: Timothy Williams, M.D.

As we age, we experience a number of changes in the way our bodies function. We may have muscle soreness and lack flexibility. We notice changes in our energy levels and appetites. In some cases, we may experience shortness of breath, an occasional racing pulse and a decreased ability to exercise. Attributing these things to age may be correct in some cases; however these experiences also may be a sign of a more serious condition called atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is the most common arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rhythm, seen in clinical practice. An estimated 2.3 million Americans have the condition, and by age 80, 8 percent of Americans will carry the diagnosis. So, what does the condition mean? Imagine the heart's beat is the rhythm of a song. Just as it beats in a series of expansions and contractions, there is a steady pulse in most music we hear. If the rhythm of the music changes abruptly and continuously, it makes it difficult to dance to the song. Likewise, if the rhythm of the music is rushed, it's not only difficult to dance to, but you'd quickly be out of breath. The heart has pace-making cells that help maintain a rhythm so blood can flow throughout the body. In a fast arrhythmia, the heart begins to beat so fast it can't relax, and is thus unable to move the blood (and thus oxygen) through the body. This irregular heartbeat could last for a few seconds or be a permanent condition. People with atrial fibrillation may experience differing symptoms, but regardless of the symptoms or severity, there are ways to reduce the risk for potential problems. Recognizing symptoms If you experience shortness of breath, fatigue, an irregular or racing pulse, palpitations, dizziness and a decreased ability to exercise, don't just chalk it up to getting older. You may be experiencing atrial fibrillation. Although the condition's presentation does vary, several circumstances remain common triggers of the problem. Personal stress, thyroid problems, use of caffeine or energy drinks, use of alcohol, certain allergy medications and general illness are all widespread causes of atrial fibrillation. Getting treatment There are several different treatment options available for atrial fibrillation, and your physician can help you to determine which might be best for you: Common medications A large group of patients can have symptomatic relief by taking common medicines that slow the heart rate. In general, these medications have little impact on the frequency of the arrhythmia itself. Rhythm Control This type of treatment is used to target the arrhythmia itself. The medications are known as "anti-arrhythmics" and require closer follow-up with physicians. Electrical cardioversion Electrical cardioversion involves shocking the heart back into a normal rhythm. The procedure is performed while a patient is sedated. Ablation For those with unrelenting symptoms, inability to tolerate medications or breakthrough symptoms, curative procedures are available. During an ablation, the tissue that causes the irregular beat is eliminated. If you suspect you may have atrial fibrillation or any heart condition, it is important to see your physician immediately. The condition is serious, but fortunately the treatments are readily available and can ease some of the "growing pains" we experience as we age.

Dr. Williams finished medical school and his internal medicine residency at the University of Virginia. He has additional certification in echocardiography, nuclear cardiology, and vascular medicine. His interests include preventive cardiology and treatment of conditions like atrial fibrillation.

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