You may have seen a number of commercials lately where the term “AFib” is used. The narrator is not referring to a tendency to tell a little white lie. Rather, these are commercials to promote drugs that treat a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation, also known by the shorthand term AFib.
So what is AFib? According to the Cleveland Clinic website: “Atrial fibrillation is the most common irregular heart rhythm that starts in the atria. Instead of the SA node (sinus node) directing the electrical rhythm, many different impulses rapidly fire at once, causing a very fast, chaotic rhythm in the atria. Because the electrical impulses are so fast and chaotic, the atria cannot contract and/or squeeze blood effectively into the ventricle.”
As far as I know, I have never been diagnosed with AFib. At least I cannot recall ever seeing this diagnosis on a medical report from my doctors, nor do I remember hearing them use the term with my facts, nor do I take any of the drugs that are traditionally prescribed for AFib. Finally, I never remember having a fast and chaotic heartbeat. As I recall, my initial heart problem resulted from a really low and lethargic heartbeat also referred to as Bradycardia.
However, my friends with AFib may have the same end result that I experience – a heart that doesn’t pump as well as it should. The Cleveland Clinic website tells us: “Atrial fibrillation can decrease the heart’s pumping ability. The irregularity can make the heart work less efficiently. In addition, atrial fibrillation that occurs over a long period of time can significantly weaken the heart and lead to heart failure. “ So I am not surprised to learn that one of the potential causes of AFib is cardiomyopathy, the condition that plagues me.
I was also not surprised to learn that a number of the symptoms of AFib are similar to the symptoms that I endure: lack of energy, dizziness and shortness of breath. However, unlike an AFib patient I have not experienced (and hope never to experience) the symptoms of chest discomfort and heart palpitations. I am especially happy not to experience heart palpitations. I have enough of a challenge dealing with anxiety. I don’t need the extra added attraction of fast heartbeats to arouse my anxiety.
As with my Bradycardia, AFib is a condition that impacts the heart’s electrical system. According to the website of the American College of Cardiology (Cardiosmart), “Your heart’s electrical system tells your heart when to contract and pump blood to the rest of your body. With AFib, these electrical signals short circuit in a sense. This results in a chaotic, rapid heart rate.
The website for the heart rhythm society (hrsonline) characterizes AFib as one of the most common abnormal heart rhythms, and a major health problem. This is the case particularly once a person reaches the age of 65 years, (and earlier in many patients). Additionally, hrsonline tells us that having a stroke is the greatest risk for the patient with atrial fibrillation. According to the American Heart Association webpage on AFib, a patient with AFib is 5 times more likely to have a stroke than someone who doesn’t have atrial fibrillation. In some patients, the first indication of AFib may be admission to a hospital with a stroke. Another adverse result of AFib is that if the heart beat is very fast for a long period of time the condition may lead to heart failure.
The American Heart Association website has a 5 page document answering frequently asked questions about AFib. I believe it is an excellent resource. It tells us that the common triggers for AFib include: energy drinks, alcohol, stress or anxiety and sleep apnea. The AHA noted that normal amounts of caffeine should not trigger AFib, but that additional study of energy drinks is warranted.
Exercise is an area that requires balance, with AHA noting that another common AFib trigger is exercise that increases the heart rate above a certain point. But the AHA acknowledged that it is important to note that exercise is beneficial for many people with AFib.
Another FAQ discusses the drugs that may be prescribed to treat AFib. They include a drug known as an anticoagulant (also known as a blood thinner). This is to reduce the possibility of (or to treat) blood clots that can lead to a stroke. Another drug that may be prescribed is one to control heart rate, regulating the pace of electrical impulses sent from the atria to the ventricles. Three types of rate control drugs include my old friend the beta blocker or a calcium channel blocker. The third drug that might be prescribed is one to control heart rhythm, to steady the heart beat patterns so that they become more normal.
If you are like me, you want to know what it feels like to have AFib so that you can go straight to your doctor if you have what you believe is an episode of AFib. The website of the heart rhythm society advises: "AFib feels like Drums Pounding in my Chest; or AFib feels like Thunder Rumbling in My Chest; or AFib feels like Fish flopping in my Chest." Thankfully, I can truly say that I have never had any of these feelings. When I think of my heart, I picture this cartoon-like wimpy, sluggish heart that would never have the energy to pound or rumble, much less flop.
So now you know what it feels like to have AFib. But you also might want to know whether you are at risk for AFib. If you look at the patients resources on the hrsonline website, you will find a risk assessment quiz that you can take to help you judge your vulnerability to AFib.
Like every other heart condition I have studied, there are diet implications for those who suffer from AFib. But one precaution for AFib patients might not occur to those who maintain a healthy diet. AFib patients must carefully monitor the intake of leafy green vegetables such as kale. Why? Because these vegetables have vitamin K in them, which can interfere with the effects of your blood thinning medication.
Can the condition of AFib be cured? According to a September 2011 article on the stopafib.org website: “While medications and electrical cardioversion are common for atrial fibrillation treatment, they don't cure AFib. There are two major approaches to consider if medications aren't working for you. Catheter ablation and surgical maze procedures cure atrial fibrillation for many patients.”
So what are these procedures? According to the Cleveland Clinic website during catheter ablation, “a doctor inserts a catheter (thin, flexible tube) into the heart. A special machine delivers energy through the catheter to tiny areas of the heart muscle that cause the abnormal heart rhythm. This energy “disconnects” the pathway of the abnormal rhythm. Ablation can also be used to disconnect the electrical pathway between the upper chambers (atria) and lower chambers (ventricles) of the heart. The type of ablation performed depends upon the type of arrhythmia.”
Sounding more mysterious is a surgical maze procedure. According to the Templehealth.org website: “In a MAZE procedure, a surgeon creates a series of lines on the outer surface of the upper heart that blocks the passage of the rogue signal. The lines are made either as small cuts or via devices that emit highly focused heat or cold. The exact placement of the lines varies, but they are intended to create a “breakwater” of scar tissue that smooths out the electrical waves during fibrillation. This often relieves the symptoms. MAZE can be performed as traditional “open heart” surgery, alone or in combination with another procedure, or via one of several minimally invasive methods.”
The StopAFib organization has an interesting history. The organization was started by former AFib patient Mellanie True Hills, who has been cured of the condition. The “About Us” feature of the AFib website says that Ms. Hills “created StopAfib.org as part of the American Foundation for Women’s Health to share what she and other atrial fibrillation patients have learned and to provide you with information and answers to your questions. StopAfib.org is a patient-to-patient resource to help you control your atrial fibrillation so it doesn't rule your life. Though atrial fibrillation impacts women and their families, we're not here just for women, but for anyone—patients, families, and caregivers—living with the life-changing impact of atrial fibrillation. You are not alone.”
Definitely consult Stop AFib as well as the other organizations discussed in this post if you want to learn more about AFib. I can guarantee you that nothing on the website will be a fib or even a little white lie – it will be the honest truth!
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.