The All-In-One Guide to Atrial Fibrillation

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According to statistics, there are currently 2.7 million people in the US who are suffering from atrial fibrillation. This is the most common type of heart arrhythmia, a condition that refers to the irregular beating of the heart and could interrupt with the blood’s normal flow.

Because of the condition’s ability to interrupt with the normal blood flow, people suffering from it are at high risk of stroke and blood clots. The atrial fibrillation might just be temporary. However, it has the tendency to come and go and could even end up a permanent condition. But by applying proper medical care, anyone suffering from atrial fibrillation should still be able to live a normal and active life.

Atrial Fibrillation Causes

Our heart is made up of four chambers, two ventricles, and two atria. Atrial fibrillation happens when these chambers will no longer work together as they should as a result of the defect in electrical signaling. Generally, the atria and the ventricles tend to contract in the same speed. If you’re suffering from atrial fibrillation, your ventricles and atria are out of sync since the atria tend to contract very quickly and in an irregular manner.

The atrial fibrillation is usually called the sick sinus syndrome due to the Sinoatrial Node or the sinus at the right atrium will end up controlling the electrical impulses.

It’s not always known what causes the atrial fibrillation. However, here are the conditions that could damage the heart and could lead to atrial fibrillation:

  • Binge drinking
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart surgery
  • Heart valve disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where the heart muscle starts to get thick
  • Overactive thyroid gland
  • Pericarditis, or inflammation of the heart’s sac-like covering
  • Taking certain medications
  • Thyroid disease

Atrial Fibrillation Types

Before, Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) is classified as either acute or chronic disease. However, in 2014, the American College of Cardiology has released new guidelines for the classification of atrial fibrillation, which consists of four types:

  • Long-standing persistent AFib
  • Paroxysmal AFib
  • Permanent AFib
  • Persistent AFib

It’s possible that you start by suffering from one type AFib, which could eventually progress to another condition. Read on to learn more about each type of Atrial Fibrillation.

Long-standing Persistent Atrial Fibrillation

A long-standing and persistent atrial fibrillation would normally last for at least a year without any interruption. This type of AFib is usually associated with structural heart damage. Of all the types of atrial fibrillation, this type is said to be the most difficult to treat. Several medications have been used to maintain a normal heart rhythm, yet they all turn out ineffective. More invasive treatments may be needed to cure this condition and these include:

  • Catheter ablation
  • Electrical cardioversion
  • Pacemaker implantation

Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation

Paroxysmal AFib is a type of condition that often comes and goes. It starts and ends spontaneously and the irregular heartbeat could last anywhere from a few seconds to one week. Yet, most of the episodes of this type of AFib will get resolved on its own in a matter of 24 hours.

Paroxysmal AFib is sometimes asymptomatic and this means that you will not experience any apparent symptoms. The most recommended treatment for this condition is a lifestyle change, which includes eliminating caffeine in the diet and reducing stress, aside from taking preventative measures and prescribed medications.

Permanent Atrial Fibrillation

Long-standing persistent atrial fibrillation could possibly become permanent if the treatment applied has not been able to restore the normal heart rate. As such, your doctor may need to decide to stop any further treatment. This means that your heart will forever be in the state of AFib. Research shows that this kind of AFib could result in the more severe symptoms, which include increased risk of a major heart attack and low quality of life.

Persistent Atrial Fibrillation

Persistent AFib happens spontaneously and could last for up to a week. It may or may not cure on its own, but medical interventions like cardioversion are often performed. For this treatment, the doctor will shock your heart into rhythm. This can somehow help to stop the acute and often persistent AFib episode.

Comparing the 4 Types of Atrial Fibrillation

The biggest difference between the different types of Atrial Fibrillation mentioned above is basically the duration of the episode. Symptoms are not different regardless of the type of atrial fibrillation that you have or the duration of the episodes. There are those who will not exhibit any symptoms of the condition even if they are in the Atrial Fibrillation for a long time. Others are symptomatic after a short period. Generally, the longer the atrial fibrillation is sustained, the more likely that symptoms could occur.

The main goal of treating all types of Atrial Fibrillation is to restore the heart’s normal beating and slow down the heart rate. The goal is to also prevent any blood clots and treat all underlying conditions, including thyroid problems, high blood pressure, and heart illnesses.

Who’s at Risk for Atrial Fibrillation?

Below are some of the factors that could increase one’s risk of developing atrial fibrillation:

  • Age (the older you get, the higher your risk will be)
  • Drinking alcohol, especially binge drinking
  • Being male
  • Being white
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Diabetes
  • History of heart attacks
  • History of heart surgery
  • Lung disease
  • Obesity
  • Pericarditis
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Structural heart defects
  • Suffering from heart disease
  • Thyroid conditions

The following might also be able to increase your risk of suffering from AFib:

  • You are taking high-dose steroid therapy
  • You have a family history of atrial fibrillation
  • You suffer from Sleep apnea

Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms

You may not suffer from any symptoms if you have developed atrial fibrillation, however, you could suffer from the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Fatigue
  • Heart palpitations (this is a feeling that your heart is skipping and is beating too fast)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness

How is Atrial Fibrillation Diagnosed?

Your doctor could use any of the following to diagnose you of atrial fibrillation:

  • A physical exam that includes checking your blood pressure, pulse, and lungs.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG), a type of test that would check your heart’s electrical impulses for a few seconds. If AFib will not occur during the test, your doctor may ask you to wear an EKG monitor.

The diagnosis also includes:

  • A chest X-ray used to view your lungs and heart.
  • Blood tests, which is used to check for any metabolic or thyroid conditions.
  • Echocardiogram, which is a noninvasive test that makes use of sound waves in producing a moving image of your heart.
  • Event monitor, which is a small device that records your heart at certain times only or when you are showing some symptoms. It’s usually recommended to be worn for weeks or until the atrial fibrillation symptoms will occur.
  • Holter monitor, which is a small portable device that you can wear for up to 48 hours in order to observe your heart rate.
  • Stress test, which closely monitors your heart when you’re exercising.
  • Trans-esophageal echocardiogram, which is an invasive version of the echocardiogram performed by attaching a probe at the esophagus.

Living with Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation

Staying healthy is the best way to live a normal and active life even when you’re suffering from atrial fibrillation. Underlying conditions, like thyroid disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes are some of the most common factors that could lead to AFib episode.

In order to prevent episodes of atrial fibrillation, it’s important that you avoid too much consumption of alcohol, as well as stimulants, like nicotine and caffeine.

Above all, make sure you talk to your doctor and get checked regularly.

The Difference Between Valvular and Non-Valvular Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation is considered “valvular” if it’s seen in people who are suffering from a heart valve disorder or those with a prosthetic heart valve. Non-valvular AFib refers to the Atrial Fibrillation that’s caused by some other factors including stress and high blood pressure.

The exact definition of valvular AFib is still widely debated. Anywhere between 4 to 30% of people who are suffering from atrial fibrillation are believed to have valvular AFib. This wide range could be due to the lack of consensus on what causes have to be considered as valvular.

How is Atrial Fibrillation Treated?

You may not need to undergo any treatment if you’re not showing any symptoms of the atrial fibrillation. Furthermore, if you don’t suffer from any heart conditions or if your AFib will merely stop on its own. If you no longer need to undergo a treatment, your doctor may still recommend you the following:

Medication

  • Take blood-thinning medications that can help to prevent the formation of blood clots.
  • Take medications that can help to normalize the heart contractions and palpitations.
  • Take medications that could prevent atrial fibrillation.

Procedures

Atrioventricular (AV) Node Ablation. These are radio waves that destroy the Atrioventricular node, the node that connects the atria and the ventricles. As a result, the atria won’t be able to send signals to the ventricles anymore.

Catheter Ablation. This makes use of a catheter that will deliver radio waves to your heart in order to destroy the abnormal tissues responsible for sending out irregular impulses.

Electrical Cardioversion. This is a brief electrical shock that could reset the rhythm of the contractions of your heart.

Maze Surgery. This is a type of invasive surgery that is either open-heart or done through small incisions in the chest. During the surgery, the surgeon will create small cuts at the atria of the heart in order to create a “maze” of scars that can help to stop abnormal electrical impulses from getting into the other areas in the heart.

Surgery

Your doctor may also ask you to undergo treatment for certain underlying health conditions including heart diseases and thyroid problems that could trigger your atrial fibrillation.

Prevention

The best way to treat episodes of Atrial Fibrillation is to prevent it from happening. You could minimize your risk of atrial fibrillation episodes if you avoid the triggers and maintain a good heart health:

Avoiding Triggers

If you’re already suffering from atrial fibrillation, you have probably discovered certain behaviors that could cause an episode. One of this is binge drinking of alcohol. Highly caffeinated energy drinks could cause some problems and some other common triggers include poor sleep and stress.

You must pay close attention to the triggers and talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes if you want to keep the episodes of Atrial Fibrillation at bay

Maintaining Your Heart Health

It’s not exactly clear as to why people suffer from Atrial Fibrillation. Perhaps, you have a condition known as the lone atrial fibrillation, which makes you suffer from some other heart-related problems as well. In these situations, it is difficult to identify exactly what causes your AFib episodes.

However, many people who have a history of AFib have a history of suffering from conditions that are linked to heart health and this includes:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Hypertension or high blood pressure
  • Valve disease

You could keep your heart pumping smoothly if you do the following:

  • Control your blood pressure
  • Eat heart-healthy diet
  • Exercise for 20 minutes on most days of the week
  • Get enough sleep
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Properly manage your cholesterol levels
  • Quit smoking
  • Reduce stress

What Are the Triggers for Atrial Fibrillation?

Most of those who have paroxysmal atrial fibrillation are experiencing transient episodes resulting from a specific trigger. Recognizing the presence of triggers and preventing them can help to effectively manage Atrial Fibrillation. Among the most common triggers in Atrial Fibrillation are medication, caffeine, and hormones.

Fatigue and Illness

Physical illness, sleep deprivation, and surgery are some of the most common triggers of atrial fibrillation. If your body is no longer running at 100%, you could suffer from physical stress. Stress could trigger abnormal electrical activity in your heart. Eating a well-balanced diet and getting enough sleep especially if traveling, is very important for people suffering from Atrial Fibrillation.

Emotional Triggers

Emotions play an important role in your bodily functions. If you’re sad or upset, you could lose your appetite. Stress could lead to muscle tightness and soreness. Anxiety, fright, and extreme happiness can all cause your heart to beat fast. The range of strong emotions that you experience in a particular situation can greatly trigger your atrial fibrillation episodes.

Hormones

The hormone’s normal fluctuation may also trigger AFib episodes among women. Research has shown a link between normal hormonal changes in the menstrual cycle and the prevalence of SVT or supraventricular tachycardia. Undergoing menopause at a young age could also lower one’s risk in developing the AFib, as observed in a recent study.

Exercise

During rare cases, increase in physical activities can also trigger signs of AFib episodes. Nevertheless, exercise is still a healthy habit that everyone should embrace. Exercise is one of those positive lifestyle changes that can help people easily cope with atrial fibrillation. It’s best to consult with your doctor before you decide to begin a new exercise plan.

Medication

If you have atrial fibrillation, it would be best to talk to your doctor before you decide to take any OTC medicines or dietary supplements. Nasal spray decongestants and cold medications are some of the most common culprits. Your doctor can suggest certain medications that are safe for you to use or recommend other alternatives.

Dehydration

You could experience AFib events if you are dehydrated. A drastic change in the level of fluid in your body could greatly affect several of your bodily functions and this includes the functioning of your heart. Change in eating patterns, exhaustion, as well as physical exertion can all cause dehydration in certain situations. Drinking too much caffeine and alcohol could worsen your dehydration and will further increase your risk of Atrial Fibrillation.

Foods to Avoid When You Have Atrial Fibrillation

There are plenty of heart-healthy foods that can help you in controlling over the rhythms and palpitations of your heart. These include:

  • Fish and foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Fruits and vegetables that are high in potassium, vitamins, and beta-carotene.
  • Oatmeal, especially with nuts, berries, and seeds for extra fiber and protein.

Certain foods are not good for the health of your heart and could put you at high risk of developing the symptoms of atrial fibrillation. These include foods that are high in sodium, sugar, and fat. Eating a lot of these foods could also put you at high risk of heart attacks.

Here’s a list of some food and drinks that you need to avoid:

Alcohol

Studies have shown that alcohol could trigger AFib episodes especially if you have experienced a paroxysmal AFib attack in the past. As stated by the CMAJ, moderate drinking of alcohol could still make you suffer from AFib episodes, especially if you’re someone with diabetes or heart disease. Binge drinking of alcohol is extremely risky, and if you’re suffering from AFib, you should not drink more than two glasses of alcoholic drinks per day.

Caffeine

For many years, people with atrial fibrillation have been asked to avoid caffeine. Some of the products that contain caffeine are:

  • Coffee
  • Guarana
  • Soda
  • Tea

However, clinical studies have failed to prove any link between the intake of caffeine and episodes of atrial fibrillation. According to one Danish study, there’s been no link between AFib and intake of coffee. Another study done in dogs has shown that the risk of triggering an AFib episode can be reduced among these animals.

You may also need to limit your consumption of energy drinks containing caffeine although a cup of coffee should be just fine.

Fat

If you have AFib, it means you should eat right. High blood pressure and obesity can both increase your chances of developing AFib.

Following a diet that’s low in calorie, high in vegetables and less sugar is one of the best ways to combat high cholesterol, excess weight, and high blood pressure. Professional cardiologists also recommend reducing certain types of fats in your diet.

Some of the unhealthy fats to avoid are the following:

High-Fat Animal Products. These include pork, beef, and chicken meat with the skin still attached.

Trans Fats. These are the most dangerous of all fats and these are usually found in margarine and those foods that are made with hydrogenated vegetable oils.

In a study done in 2017, it’s been found that there’s a slight increase in the risk of AFib among men who have traded saturated fats with the polyunsaturated fats. Further research is needed in order to confirm these findings and to determine some other factors that have contributed to such an outcome.

Salt

Intake of salt can also worsen hypertension or high blood pressure. Limiting your consumption of sodium can help to maintain your healthy heart condition and lessen your risk of Atrial Fibrillation.

Several frozen foods and processed foods tend to use plenty of salt as preservatives. Before you eat any of these foods, take time to read the labels and if possible, stick only to fresh foods and foods that are low in sodium or those that don’t have any added salt. Fresh herbs and salt substitutes can help to keep food more flavorful but without the added sodium. You should limit your intake of sodium to less than 1,500 mg each day.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is most common in the following products:

  • Calf’s liver
  • Cauliflower
  • Green tea
  • Leafy greens, including kale and spinach
  • Parsley

It is always a good idea to avoid large changes in the quantities of these foods while you are taking warfarin, a blood-thinning medicine.  If you’re suffering from AFib, the medication can help to prevent blood clotting. Try to keep your intake of Vitamin K as stable as possible.

The amount of vitamin K that you should aim to consume daily would vary depending on your age. It’s highly recommended that you do the following:

  • Adolescents who are between 14 and 18 years old can have 75 micrograms of Vitamin K per day.
  • Most females who are more than 19 years of age must consume more than 90 mcg per day.
  • Most males who are more than 19 years old can have at least 120 mcg of Vitamin K per day.

Vitamin K may interact with Warfarin and would lessen its effectiveness. Thus, it’s necessary to talk to your doctor before you decide to increase your consumption of vitamin K.

Potassium

Potassium is extremely important for cardiac health since it allows the muscles to be able to work more efficiently. One of the main reasons why plenty of people tend to have a low level of potassium is because of their unbalanced diet that includes taking a certain type of medications, including diuretics. Low level of potassium can also increase your risk of suffering from arrhythmia.

Some of the best sources of potassium are the following:

  • Fruits, including bananas, avocados, bananas, oranges, and apricot.
  • Prunes
  • Root vegetables, including beets and sweet potatoes.
  • Squash
  • Tomatoes

Since potassium could possibly interact with certain medications, make sure you talk to your doctor before you include more potassium in your diet.

4 Ways to Stop an AFib Episode

Make sure you consult with your doctor before you perform any of the techniques that can help to stop AFib episodes. It’s important that you know when the symptoms are serious enough that you may need to go to the emergency room.

Call your doctor if:

  • You exhibit certain symptoms like arm weakness, facial drooping, and difficulty in speaking.
  • You suffer from chest pains and other heart attack symptoms.
  • You’re suffering from the irregular beating of the heart accompanied with a feeling of faintness or lightheadedness.

You must also call your doctor if your atrial fibrillation episodes last longer than what you would normally experience.

Slow Breathing

Focused and slow abdominal breathing is enough to help you to relax and calm your heart. Sit still for a while and take a long and slow breath. Hold it for a moment before exhaling slowly again. Hold one hand gently and firmly against your diaphragm as you begin to exhale.

You could learn this kind of breathing technique with the help of biofeedback training. This is a kind of therapy where an electronic monitoring of the heart rate is used in training yourself to control over your heartbeat. Some other techniques that are taught in the therapy are:

  • Focused breathing
  • Muscle control
  • Visualization

It’s important that you talk to your doctor regarding the biofeedback therapy.

Vagal Maneuvers

For those who are suffering from paroxysmal AFib, certain techniques can help to reset your heartbeat back into a steady pace. Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation is a type of AFib where the episodes would normally resolve in only a few days. One technique that could possibly help to end your episodes earlier is drinking cold water. This can help to “shock” the heart a little bit.

Yoga

If you are suffering from an atrial fibrillation episode, performing a gentle yoga could help to settle your heart down. Even if you cannot stop the episode that has already started, yoga can somehow help to minimize the frequency of your AFib episodes. On a 2015 study, it was found that people suffering from AFib who took antiarrhythmic medications voluntarily and have undergone yoga training have achieved significant reduction on their heart rate and blood pressure.

Exercise

If you are an athlete and you’re suffering from Atrial Fibrillation, you could find a relief for your symptoms through exercise. A case study from 2002 has shown that a 45-year-old athlete who suffered from paroxysmal AFib has successfully halted his episodes by exercising in an elliptical machine as well as a cross-country skiing machine.

And although these workout exercises can help to minimize your episodes of AFib, you should not try this approach without first consulting your doctor.

How to Prevent Blood Clots If You Have Atrial Fibrillation?

Several cases of Atrial Fibrillation have been diagnosed during EKG. This is a simple test that a doctor can use in assessing the electrical activity of your heat. This test also helps to spot any irregularities, which include AFib.

AFib is not always life threatening and you can simply go on with your life without suffering from its complications. To lower your chances of suffering from these complications, it’s a good idea to seek advice from your doctor about a management or treatment plan that can work well for you.

Medications

If your doctor has diagnosed you of having Atrial Fibrillation, he or she may prescribe blood-thinning medications that can help to minimize your risk of blood clots. Your doctor will also prescribe some other medications that can help to restore the normal rhythm and beating of your heart.

Cardiac Procedures

In some instances, your doctor might recommend undergoing electrical cardioversion to help restore the normal rhythm of your heart. Your doctor will also use patches and paddles to apply an electrical current to your chest.

There are also cases where your doctor may need to control your heart rate using medications. Atrial fibrillation could cause your heart rate to beat so fast. Rate control medications can help to keep your heart to beat normally, although occasionally, an adequate dose may also result in an extremely low heart rate. A low heart rate could occur even without medications.

Treating Underlying Conditions

Your doctor will most likely recommend treating some of your underlying conditions when treating atrial fibrillation. For instance, heart diseases, heart defects, drug and alcohol use, electrolyte abnormalities, infections, and thyroid problems could trigger AFib and will increase your risk of blood clots. The recommended treatment plan will greatly vary depending on the diagnosis specified.

Conclusion

It is definitely possible to develop atrial fibrillation without suffering from any complications. However, in some cases, this can also trigger blood clots to develop. If this is left untreated, the blood clots could travel into the other areas of the body and will cause serious damage. Stroke is usually common with atrial fibrillation.

So if you feel like you are suffering from the symptoms of AFib and blood clots, you should see your doctor immediately. Your doctor can diagnose your symptoms and will come up with a treatment plan that can help to manage your condition and minimize your complications.

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